St. John's enjoys senior moment at MSG

NEW YORK -- Steve Lavin said there are two memories he will take away from Saturday afternoon at Madison Square Garden.

One is of Dwight Hardy's incredible reverse layup with 1.2 seconds left, which gave St. John's a stunning 60-59 win over No. 4 Pittsburgh.

The other is a timeout with just under four minutes remaining in the game. Lavin's Red Storm had fought back from a six-point deficit to cut Pitt's lead to two, but Lavin thought his players looked "deflated" when they were walking toward the bench. So he decided to talk to them about something else besides game strategy.

"I was really encouraging the group in the last four minutes to have fun -- that life will never get any better than this moment," Lavin said. "I said, 'This is Madison Square Garden, you've got this place electrified and you're playing with your best friends, and we're playing the No. 4 team in the country.' I said. 'This is fun!'

"I said, 'I don't care -- it's not about the winning or losing, or whether we get a bucket here or not. It's about enjoying this moment and playing with passion and everything that we have.'"

Lavin pushed the right button, as he has for much of this season. And after this victory -- the Red Storm's fifth over a ranked opponent and second versus a top-5 team -- St. John's is virtually assured of going to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002.

The win also means St. John's (17-9, 9-5 Big East) will undoubtedly be ranked in the Top 25 on Monday for the first time since Nov. 28, 2000.

"It's gonna be a great feeling," Hardy said. "We'll enjoy it for a while, but at the same time, we can lose that number just like that. So we just gotta stay focused and stay positive and keep working hard so we can maintain that number."

"I can't wait," fellow senior Justin Burrell said of being ranked. "It's been four long years -- four long years -- without one of those numbers. So I'm really excited. ... We deserve to see that number."

This game will be remembered by most for Hardy's shot (which Lavin labeled a "Baryshnikov move"), the final two of his team-high 19 points. It's just the latest star turn in what's turning out to be a wonderful senior season. Hardy deserves to at least be mentioned among the contenders for Big East Player of the Year.

But Hardy had a lot of help from his teammates in this game -- starting with Burrell, who came off the bench to score 15 points and secure eight rebounds.

And Burrell wasn't the only one. In fact, with Hardy and second-leading scorer Justin Brownlee on the bench for a long stretch of the first half because of foul trouble -- and the same thing with third-leading scorer D.J. Kennedy in the second half -- several other players stepped up to make big plays.

Malik Boothe had four assists, and a memorable deke move and lay-in. Sean Evans and Dele Coker pulled down big rebounds. And Paris Horne, who did not score a point, made arguably the second-biggest St. John's play of the game. He grabbed an offensive board off a Hardy missed free throw with 48 seconds remaining, which led to St. John's regaining the lead, 58-56.

Lavin was asked if he gave out a game ball to a most valuable player. The coach said he hadn't had a chance to -- yet.

"You know what I may do is go back and review," Lavin said. "If we were to go back, we'd probably look with some distance and perspective and see who deserved the game ball."

When he does, he'll see that all eight seniors deserved one.

In each of St. John's five wins over Top 25 teams this season, the Red Storm proved something. On Jan. 3 against Georgetown, they proved they could beat a ranked team. On Jan. 16 against Notre Dame, they proved the Georgetown game wasn't a fluke.

On Jan. 30 against Duke, they proved they could beat anyone in the country. On Feb. 10 against UConn, they proved they own Madison Square Garden as their home court again.

On Feb. 19 against Pittsburgh, they proved they can beat one of the best teams in the country, even when that team is on its game. Duke did not play well at all here three weeks ago, but this game was a different story -- just listen to Pittsburgh's coach.

"We did a lot of good things," Jamie Dixon said. "We played hard. We played well. Give them credit."

Dixon's counterpart admitted his first St. John's squad has progressed even faster than he had anticipated and hoped it would this season.

"I'd say in terms of the number of wins over quality opponents, we may be a bit ahead of schedule," Lavin said. "My hope was by March to have a dangerous, scrappy and opportunistic team that could beat anybody in the country if they didn't bring an 'A' game or if they overlooked us. It appears we've hit that in late January and February."

Which means March is going to be a "mad" month in the Big Apple again.

Mad, and memorable.