It's been a tough season for St. John's. The Red Storm hope a close loss to No. 3 UConn can help salvage what remains.
Shenneika Smith scored 21 points and freshman Aliyyah Handford added a season-high 17 in the Red Storm's 71-65 loss to Connecticut on Saturday.
With 3 minutes left, St. John's found itself locked in another tight contest with the Huskies. Once again they couldn't come up with the plays down the stretch to get a win.
"This right here was what we needed," Smith said. "Play UConn — a tough team — and match them and play hard. This might be the corner we turned right here."
The loss was a microcosm of the season for the Red Storm, who advanced to the regional semifinals of the NCAA tournament for the first time last season. They just haven't been able to pull out close games.
The defeat dropped the Red Storm's record to .500 (10-10, 4-4 Big East). Time seems to be running out for St. John's to try and make the NCAA tournament — especially important with the Red Storm hosting the first two rounds.
"They know what's on the line," St. John's coach Joe Tartamella said. "We understand that this group has to have a great run at the end of the year. They are resilient ready to work. It gives them another look at what they're capable of. It can be a springboard. We're not going away."
The Red Storm have had a rough season with three losses on their final possession, including on a buzzer-beating 50-footer against Syracuse in their last home game. The Red Storm also lost in the last seconds to No. 25 Delaware and No. 18 UCLA.
"Joe's done a great job," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "They are maybe three or four possessions away from having five more wins."
St. John's couldn't pull off the same upset as last season when the Red Storm ended UConn's 99-game home winning streak.
"There's no solace to a loss, we've talked about it a lot this year," Tartamella said. "We really as a staff were very happy with the way our team played today. That's a fun game. It's a fun game against a great opponent. They competed today, played harder than they have all year. They showed them what they are capable of."
With the game tied at 57, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis took over, scoring UConn's next seven points. She had a three-point play and then hit four free throws to give UConn a 64-59 lead with 1:55 left.
Handford hit one free throw to make it a four-point game with 1:37 left. Kelly Faris answered with a 3-pointer 20 seconds later to seal the win for the Huskies (20-1, 7-1).
"I was trying to get her the ball down the stretch because I knew she would do something good with it," said Faris, who added 17 points for the Huskies.
The Red Storm showed no fear against with the Huskies, who were missing starting center Stefanie Dolson because of an illness. The Huskies didn't find out until just before the game that Dolson wouldn't play.
"She's become a huge part of what we do offensively and defensively, a lot of our offense runs through her," Faris said. "Some way or another, the offense kind of stems on what she does."
Handford helped the Red Storm build a 51-46 lead midway through the second half. UConn used a 9-2 run to take a 55-53 lead. Faris' 3-pointer capped the burst.
The game was tied at 35 at the half before St. John's went on a 10-4 run to open the second period. Smith had five points and Handford four during the spurt. UConn answered quickly with its own 7-0 run to take a 46-45 lead with 12:56 left.
Handford and Briana Brown combined for 23 points in the first half. Handford scored consistently in transition while Brown hit all three of her 3-pointers. St. John's shot 54 percent in the first half.
The Huskies lost guard Brianna Banks to a right knee sprain in the first half.
Follow Doug on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/dougfeinberg