Ashley Perez of Manchester, Conn., had a front row seat at Gampel Pavilion last Feb. 18 when the University of Connecticut women's basketball team had its NCAA record 99-game home winning streak snapped by St. John's.
But her seat was behind the Red Storm's bench. Two months earlier, she had signed a letter of intent to play basketball at St. John's. So Shenneika Smith's 3-point basket with 8.1 seconds left that gave the Red Storm a 57-56 win was worth celebrating.
"It was pretty epic, really exciting," Perez said. "The crowd shut up really quick. They were quiet."
Perez hopes to get the chance to make some noise on the court Saturday as St. John's plays host to third-ranked UConn at Carnesecca Arena (2 p.m., SNY).
A 5-foot-9 guard, Perez scored over 2,000 points in her four-year career at Manchester High. She was a four-time all-Central Connecticut Conference North pick and a three-time Class LL All-State selection. She chose St. John's over Marist and James Madison. As she neared a decision during the summer of 2011, her high school coach — John Reiser — placed a call to UConn coach Geno Auriemma to ask him about St. John's coach Kim Barnes Arico. Auriemma, like Perez, is a Manchester resident and his daughter Jenna played basketball and graduated from Manchester High.
"John told me that Ashley really wanted to play in the Big East, she wanted to stay close to home, and there were other schools not in the Big East recruiting her," Auriemma said. "The kid has a dream of playing in the Big East and a chance to play at St. John's for a great person and great coach like Kim. I told John if that was my daughter I would tell her to go and she couldn’t go wrong."
Perez, though, never got the chance to play for Barnes Arico. After leading St. John's to its first NCAA tournament Sweet 16 appearance last March, Barnes Arico left to coach at Michigan and assistant Joe Tartamella was promoted to the head job.
In 14 games off the bench, Perez is averaging 1.1 points and 1.5 rebounds in 7.8 minutes.
"She's had a couple of weeks where she was down," Tartamella said. "Like any freshman, there's a struggle with the transition. But Ashley's been working hard. She wants to play and she wants to get better and that is what we love about her. We still think she'll be a big piece for us the rest of the season and in the future.
"She has to be more consistent in her decision making. That's a big part for her and she's done that a little bit. But a lot of it is that you have to perform. In practice she's doing a better job and we're seeing it more consistently. But there are other players here and they want to play, too. It's not easy. As a freshman you have to break through the cracks. Ashley knew coming in that we had a veteran team. But she wants to win and be part of the group."
Perez is one of three Connecticut natives on the St. John's roster along with Briana Brown (Norwalk) and Keylantra Langley (Bridgeport). She hopes Saturday's game is as thrilling as last year's game in Storrs.
"It will be a little surreal for me but I'm sure it will be exciting," Perez said. "Who knows what the outcome will be? Hopefully, we will all play well."