Early slumbers yield dream night at MSG

NEW YORK -- Madison Square Garden played host to a special moment on Monday night, but its primary architect could not fully enjoy it.

After seven lead changes in the final six minutes, St. John's trailed No. 13 Georgetown 59-58 with 23 seconds left. Following a timeout, Dwight Hardy had the ball, and the game, in his hands a few feet beyond the top of the key.

The 8,897 fans in attendance were on their feet, buzzing. And after drawing up an isolation play for Hardy, Steve Lavin could only stand and watch as Hardy made his approach to the basket.

Hardy shook his defender with an in-and-out dribble, missed the ensuing shot, but Justin Brownlee grabbed the rebound and quickly put it in to give St. John's a 60-59 lead with 10 ticks remaining -- triggering a crowd explosion. A Georgetown miss, two Hardy free throws and a desperation heave later, St. John's had notched its first win over a ranked opponent in two years, in Lavin's very first Big East home game.

Lavin admitted afterward it was difficult to appreciate what was happening at the time.

"Coming down the stretch you're in the zone as a coach, just focused on the present, and ahead to the next moment in the chess game that's going on," Lavin said. "I'd be fibbin' to ya if I told you I was aware of what was going on in the crowd and the ambience and the atmosphere."

But when Lavin is able to take a step back, watch the tape and give it some thought, he will realize the magnitude of this win.

Because St. John's is officially a factor in the Big East again.

The Red Storm are now 3-0 in conference play, for the first time in more than a decade. The back-to-back road wins against West Virginia and Providence last week were impressive, but beating Georgetown is an even bigger statement. St. John's had lost 14 in a row, and 24 of its past 25, against top-25 teams. Its last win was exactly two years to the day, against Notre Dame.

The key player, once again, was Hardy, who has now scored 20 or more points in six of the team's past seven games. Hardy usually does most of his damage from the perimeter, but he had trouble finding open looks against the Hoyas. Instead, Hardy took the ball to the hole repeatedly, earning 10 of his 20 points at the foul line.

with Malik Boothe sitting with a sore hamstring, Hardy also had to handle point guard duties and committed just two turnovers while playing the full 40 minutes for the second straight game.

"It's elevated at a high level," Hardy said of his confidence right now. "Coach Lavin has tremendous faith in me, at the point guard spot as well as the 2-guard spot."

Brownlee had a big game for St. John's as well, with 15 points, seven rebounds and six assists.

Also worth noting? St. John's limited Georgetown's Austin Freeman -- the Big East's preseason player of the year -- to six points. In addition, the Red Storm made 18 of their 23 free throws and committed four turnovers as a team -- two problem-areas Lavin red-flagged at the beginning of the season.

"I'm just really pleased and proud of our players' performance in terms of finding a way to get a W," Lavin said. "It was kind of an uneven game, in terms of lacking offensive fluidity or rhythm. But so often a game at this level, two well-prepared teams, is gonna come down to just finding a way -- really willpower. So I just commend our seniors for once again leading the way."

This team, which has now won five in a row, looks very different from the one that lost to Atlantic 10 bottom-feeders St. Bonaventure and Fordham in early December. Suddenly, instead of wilting in the second half after jumping out to big leads, the Red Storm look poised and confident down the stretch.

Lavin and his players both pinpoint the Fordham loss on Dec. 11 as a major turning point.

"I think we learned a great deal through that loss, and as a result we're a different team," Lavin said. "And maybe we could have slipped by and made some free throws and somehow won that game, and maybe we win the St. Bonaventure game. [But then] I don't think we'd be 3-0 in the league because when you lose two like that, you really do some self-examination as a staff."

In particular, Lavin said he and his assistants were forced to spend more time and attention on the team's half-court offense, and on switching up the degrees of its pressure on defense.

"I always go back to that Fordham game," senior forward Justin Burrell said. "Ever since then, we knew we were a changed team."

The schedule doesn't get any easier. In fact, St. John's next seven games are all against teams currently ranked in the top 25 in the nation.

But this is a moment to savor nonetheless.

"Having come in to the Garden as an assistant at UCLA, coming in as the head coach at UCLA, coming in as a broadcaster doing Duke-St. John's games, it's one of the biggest reasons I came back to coaching -- the opportunity to be the head coach at St. John's and have your home court as Madison Square Garden," Lavin said. "That's a pinch-yourself moment."

So was Monday night.

Kieran Darcy is a staff writer for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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