Commentary

St. John's misses golden opportunity

Red Storm suffer crushing blow to hopes of earning double-bye in Big East tourney

Updated: March 4, 2011, 3:42 PM ET
By Kieran Darcy | ESPNNewYork.com

NEWARK, N.J. -- The St. John's Express plowed into a speed bump Thursday evening across the Hudson River -- and it cost them in more ways than one.

The No. 15-ranked Red Storm (19-10, 11-6 Big East) saw their six-game winning streak snapped by Seton Hall (12-17, 6-11), 84-70 at the Prudential Center. But more importantly, St. John's almost certainly squandered its opportunity of getting a two-round bye in next week's Big East tournament.

And to top it all off, in a rather stunning loss of composure, both coach Steve Lavin and forward Justin Burrell were ejected in a chaotic final two minutes.

"I'm not proud at all of the poor display of conduct on the sidelines, and I apologize to our players and St. John's and our fan base and basketball fans at large," said Lavin, who also apologized to his players in the locker room after the game. "I set a bad example."

Lavin was dismissed with 1:55 remaining and Seton Hall leading 77-68. The Pirates had just blown open the game with a 7-0 run; Lavin called a 30-second timeout and walked out onto the court to complain about a call to referee Joe Lindsay. Lindsay quickly issued a technical foul, Lavin continued to follow him and bark at him, and Lindsay gave him a second.

Veteran referee John Cahill, who also worked the game, issued this statement to reporters afterward: "[Lavin] came out onto the court in an unsportsmanlike manner, which got him the first technical foul, and then he continued to carry on in a manner that was unsportsmanlike and was assessed the [second] technical foul."

Assistant coach Mike Dunlap took over for the final minute and change. And then, with 7.6 seconds remaining and Seton Hall up by 14, Burrell knocked down Pirates freshman Anali Okoloji as he was going in for a breakaway layup. Burrell was issued a flagrant foul and also sent to the showers.

Burrell was not one of the St. John's players made available to the media after the game.

The frustration of the St. John's players and coaches was understandable, given the importance of the game, coming against a local rival and considering the very physical nature of play (there were 46 fouls called, 30 of them in the second half).

But the lack of poise in the final minutes was surprising, given the poise this team has displayed in beating six top-25 teams this season, and prevailing in tight games against Rutgers, Cincinnati, Pitt and Villanova in recent weeks.

Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard said he wasn't surprised by how physical, and even a little chippy, the game turned out to be. "It's New York and New Jersey; it always is, man," Willard said. "All these guys play against each other in the summer. ... They all know each other; they all talk trash. I don't think it was anything out of the ordinary for a St. John's-Seton Hall basketball game."

[+] EnlargeDwight Hardy
AP Photo/Mel EvansDwight Hardy's 23 points weren't enough to turn away a red-hot Seton Hall squad.

Beyond the two ejections, St. John's biggest problem Thursday night was defending the 3-point shot -- something that had been a big problem earlier in the season. Seton Hall, one of the poorest 3-point shooting teams in the country (28.4 percent, No. 342 out of 346 Division I schools), made a remarkable 12 of 18 attempts from beyond the arc. Jeremy Hazell -- who scored a season-high 31 points -- shot 4-for-6 from downtown, and freshman Fuquan Edwin was even better (5-for-6, 19 points).

"They did a nice job spacing, and then they moved the ball very well," Lavin said. "That's as remarkable a shooting performance as any team I've faced in my career."

"I think we were just a step slow on our rotations, getting out to shooters," said St. John's guard Dwight Hardy, who finished with a team-high 23 points. "Every time we closed the lead or got the lead, they just started hitting 3s, and it was tough to come back from."

"I think they had more energy than us from the jump and it showed throughout the whole game, and that's why they got the W," St. John's guard Malik Boothe said. "I really don't know [why]. It's tough in the Big East, tough throughout college basketball, to have the high intensity every game. And I think tonight we really learned that."

The truth is, St. John's was probably due for a loss -- it had won six in a row and eight of nine, starting with the blowout of Duke on Jan. 30. It was hard to see the Red Storm staying red-hot from the end of January straight through March.

The problem is, with a win at 12th-place Seton Hall, coupled with a win at home over 15th-place South Florida, St. John's would have guaranteed itself a double-bye and a spot in the Big East tournament quarterfinals.

Now, all Syracuse needs to do is beat last-place DePaul on Saturday at the Carrier Dome, and the Orange will get the last free pass to the quarters.

And St. John's will have to win four games in four days to win its first Big East championship since 2000.

"[The double-bye] would have been good, but we still got great momentum," Hardy said. "We'll be fine going into the Big East [tournament]."

If St. John's does beat South Florida on Saturday night and Syracuse defeats DePaul, the Red Storm will go into the conference tournament as the No. 5 seed -- a seed they would have signed for in a heartbeat at the beginning of the season.

But guess who St. John's would then play in its first tourney game? Either this same Seton Hall squad or Rutgers; the two New Jersey schools are locked into the No. 12 versus No. 13 game Tuesday.

A rematch with Seton Hall, or Rutgers for that matter, would be mighty interesting. But for now, the Red Storm must regroup and regain their composure before what will surely be an emotional experience on senior night at Carnesecca Arena.

"I'm very encouraged, not disappointed whatsoever," Lavin said. "My message in the locker room was that ... it's a great wake-up call, like smelling salts or getting punched in the mouth. And that's the beauty of sports -- that if you don't bring it every night, if you don't bring the brass knuckles and the A-level effort, you're gonna get beat."

Kieran Darcy is an ESPNNewYork.com staff writer. He joined ESPN in August 2000 after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, where he played four years of JV basketball.
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