By Charles Goldberg
WACO, Texas — Terri Williams-Flournoy has been preaching defense, all season. Heck, her whole life.
Her lessons were on full display on the big stage Friday night.
Auburn's shut-down defense stymied St. John's early, and the Tigers came up with clutch shots in the end to win their NCAA Tournament first-round game 68-57 Friday night in Ferrell Center. Auburn will now play home-standing Baylor at 6 p.m. Sunday in the Round of 32.
"Our young ladies were able to see right away into our defense and what our defense could do to our team," said Williams-Flournoy. "It gave St. John's another way to 'uh-oh, OK.' We know how they prepare for us: don't turn the ball over. As soon as you come out and turn the ball over, you second-guess yourself, and that's what we want our defense to do."
Auburn streaked to leads of 15-4, 19-6 and finally 25-6 with 7:20 left in the second quarter before St. John's made a game of it. The Red Storm cut the lead to 6, then 3 in the second half. But Auburn rode a career-high 24 points from Janiah McKay, a big 3-pointer from Brandy Montgomery to stifle St. John's momentum and pretty-as-you-please passes for up-close baskets late to secure the win. The Tigers shot a sizzling 72.7 percent in the fourth quarter.
It came down to this: St. John's couldn't overcome its slow start.
"Auburn did a great job in playing their style," said St. John's coach Joe Tartamella. "I thought the first quarter they really affected us."
Auburn, the ninth seed in the Dallas Region, improved to 20-12. St. John's, the eighth seed, ended its season with a 23-10 record. Waiting in the wings for Auburn now is Baylor, the No. 1 seed in the region and who sports a 34-1 record after dispatching Idaho 89-59 Friday.
Auburn made a quick impression in its 19th NCAA Tournament. The Tigers led by 19 in the second quarter before St. John's made its run. By the time it was over, the Tigers had improved their all-time record in NCAA first-round games to 17-2.
The Tigers would like to show the same kind of defensive will against Baylor as it did against St. John's.
"We knew we had to get out with momentum and that just really kept us going," Jazmine Jones said. "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."
Auburn's season-long top scorers — Montgomery, Tra'Cee Tanner and Katie Frerking — combined for 23 points. In stepped McKay and Erica Sanders, who matched her career-high of eight points.
"Anytime I play," McKay said, "I don't really think about my stats. I'm more concerned with my team winning. Kudos to Tra'Cee Tanner and Jessica Jones for setting great screens, which allowed me to get open. Coach always told me, stay aggressive. Stay aggressive."
And Auburn won.
"It's just great for our Auburn women's basketball program to get back to the NCAA Tournament," Williams-Flournoy said. "It just speaks volume to our league. When you play in a tough SEC conference, it gets you ready for the NCAA Tournament."
Charles Goldberg is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @AUGoldMine