WACO, Texas (AP) Auburn has set the tone all season with defense, and that worked again in its first NCAA Tournament game since 2009.
Freshman guard Janiah McKay scored a career-high 24 points and the Tigers forced 25 turnovers in a 68-57 victory over St. John’s in a first-round game Friday night.
”I can’t even begin to tell you how excited and proud I am of my young ladies to come out and play defense as impressive as they did,” coach Terri Williams-Flournoy said. ”It goes to show you how much they have bought into our defense and how they’ve continued to play it day in, day out and how we knew we had to get after St. John’s.”
The Lady Tigers (20-12), the No. 9 seed in the Dallas Region, jumped ahead 15-4 in the game’s first 5 minutes, including three layups after turnovers by St. John’s. That last in that opening spurt was a steal by Janiah McKay that led to her fastbreak layup.
It was 19-6 at the end of the first quarter, the lowest-scoring quarter all season for St. John’s (23-10). The Red Storm finished with their third-lowest scoring output in a season that included their first Big East Conference tournament championship since 1998.
”We knew we had to get out with momentum and that just really kept us going,” said Jazmine Jones, who had 13 points on 6-of-7 shooting. ”We knew we had to get out with momentum and that just really kept us going. It was definitely our defense that did it for us. That’s what got us here. We are going to keep playing defense like Auburn basketball does.”
Danaejah Grant had 25 points to lead St. John’s (23-10), while Aliyyah Handford scored 10.
Brandy Montgomery added 11 points for Auburn, which now has to face top-seeded Baylor (34-1) on the Lady Bears’ home court.
Baylor is 19-0 at home this season and has won 165 consecutive games at the Ferrell Center against unranked opponents.
The last to win there?
Auburn in the 2003 WNIT final, an answer Jones and McKay didn’t know until being told that.
”Wow!,” McKay said after looking at her teammate.
St. John’s was within 37-34 when Grant’s jumper with 6 minutes left in the third quarter capped a 7-0 run. But the Tigers extended their lead back to 44-35 on a 3-pointer by McKay with a minute left in the quarter.
”Even when we could get a couple of runs, we couldn’t sustain it because we would score twice and then turn it over for points,” Red Storm coach Joe Tartamella said. ”It was like a seesaw where we couldn’t really gain momentum over time.”
Auburn: The Tigers had lost four of five games coming into the NCAA Tournament. They had a season-best five-game winning streak before that. … Auburn had a 34-28 rebounding advantage. … Katie Frerking was only 3-of-11 shooting, missing all five of her 3-pointers, to finish with six points. But she also had six rebounds and six assists.
St. John’s: The Red Storm shot 50 percent on 3-pointers (5 of 10). … St. John’s had 25 turnovers that led to 32 Auburn points.
Williams-Flournoy said it’s great for Auburn to be back in the NCAA Tournament and get a victory. ”Don’t know if it does anything as special for me as it does for our young ladies. I’m just really happy for them,” she said. ”They worked real hard. I’m the one that pushes them. They’re the one that does the work.”
Despite a disappointing finish, Grant said it was a tremendous career for her and the other St. John’s seniors. She said the program is in good shape for continued success. ”We were able to accomplish something this year that hasn’t been done in 28 years, so for us to leave here on that note and to be able to sell that to recruits coming in, to be able to have something for underclassmen to look up to, it’s a great way for us to end our career.”
Auburn: plays top-seeded Baylor for a spot in the Sweet 16.
St. John’s: Season over.