FRESNO, Calif. -- Da'Shena Stevens went into surgery last Aug. 10, a simple little meniscus cleanup that was supposed to keep her out a month or so, back in time for the start of practice.
But when she came out of surgery, the news was a little different. The procedure was more extensive and Stevens, St. John's senior leader and tone-setter, would be out for four months.
Stevens and Red Storm coach Kim Barnes Arico both cried that day.
"The only thing to do was cry," Stevens said. "I was sorry and depressed and then the only thing to do was wait until December."
"It just turned everything different going into the season," Barnes Arico said.
In fact, Barnes Arico's worst fears appeared as if they might be coming true. St. John's got off to a shaky 5-5 start. On Dec. 22, the Red Storm lost to Harvard and Barnes Arico was already wondering, out loud to her staff, whether her team would even make the NCAA tournament.
But when Stevens came back into the lineup at the start of Big East play in December, the Red Storm suddenly found their groove.
"Once this team got back together, they just started playing," Barnes Arico said.
The Red Storm come into their first Sweet 16 with 11 wins in the last 12 games. They come in, propelled by a last-second first-round win over Creighton, and a hard-nosed victory over Oklahoma in Norman. It was the third time in three years St. John's has opened the tournament on somebody else's home floor (2010 at Florida State, 2011 at Stanford) and the first time they've come away with a second-round win.
"Not losing, just winning, that's what's different," junior Shenneika Smith said. "Making history, it's great. We've come so far and it's amazing."
Stevens was a jolt to the lineup. Since her return on Dec. 31, four St. John's starters have moved their scoring averages into double figures. The Red Storm also became the first team to beat Connecticut at home in 99 games.
In addition to the Huskies, they've beaten Rutgers, West Virginia, Georgetown and Louisville during their season-ending run.
They earned the highest seed in school history and learned a lesson in survival with their first-round win over Creighton on Nadirah McKenith's length-of-the-court drive and floater as the buzzer sounded. They are President Obama's pick to come out of the Fresno region and get to the Final Four.
And now they are back on the West Coast for the second time in as many seasons in March.
Barnes Arico jokes, "don't ask me about California."
Her sports information director jumps in quickly to tell reporters that the coach is talking about the difficulty of changing time zones.
But California isn't all bad, even if Fresno doesn't have that many palm trees and the weather isn't so warm. Barnes Arico's kids made a trip to Yosemite on Thursday. The coach went to In-N-Out Burger and got herself a cheeseburger, some fries and a strawberry shake.
And she might let her team go there on Friday after practice.
The players were asked whether they'd rather go to Yosemite or In-N-Out.
"In-N-Out," Shenneika Smith said. "I always pick food."