Auburn’s frenetic, pressing style has been known to unsettle opponents.
It’s questionable how flustered St. John’s senior Aliyyah Handford will be after winning the Big East tournament’s most outstanding player award.
Handford has enjoyed success in the previous two seasons against the Tigers entering Friday night’s first-round NCAA Tournament matchup in Waco, Texas.
Eighth-seeded St. John’s (23-9) and No. 9 Auburn (19-12) are familiar with each other. Tigers coach Terri Williams-Flournoy previously coached Georgetown in the Big East and her Auburn team played the Red Storm in each of the two previous seasons.
“(We know) coach Flo who was at Georgetown, and obviously we’ve played them the last two years, so we’re somewhat familiar with their style, her style,” St. John’s coach Joe Tartamella said.
That style involves intense defensive pressure that resulted in Auburn averaging 11.4 steals to rank eighth in the nation and forcing 21.2 turnovers per game to rank 12th.
The Tigers forced 22 turnovers in a 69-55 home win over St. John’s on Dec. 6, 2013. The host Red Storm had only 13 in a 56-49 victory Dec. 20, 2014.
“His team is different, our team is different, but there are a lot of similarities because nobody plays the way we play,” Williams-Flournoy said. “So we have to look at how they went against our press, what they did against our zone because their teams are so much different than our team. But we’ll look at some of it. We’ll pay attention to some of it, but it won’t be everything.”
Her team will have to pay attention to Handford, who totaled 40 points on 14-of-26 shooting in the two meetings. Handford averaged 18.7 points in the Big East tournament as St. John’s captured the event for the first time since 1988.
”I watched a group of young women in a matter of four days really kind of execute everything we had been trying to do throughout the year,” Tartamella said. ”It was just unbelievable.”
Handford has a dynamic fellow senior guard on her side in Danaejah Grant, who averaged a conference-best 19.4 points. St. John’s went to five straight NCAA Tournaments before last season.
Auburn, meanwhile, will end its longest NCAA drought with its first tournament appearance since 2009. Forward Tra’Cee Tanner, who averages 12.0 points, is the lone senior in the starting lineup while junior guard Brandy Montgomery scores 14.1 per game.
“It’s definitely an honor for us to be able to come out here and be the face of Auburn again and do something that hasn’t been done in a minute,” Tanner said.
The winner will face Baylor or Idaho in the second round.