- Kieran Darcy, ESPNNewYork.com
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NEW YORK -- St. John's entered new territory again Wednesday afternoon at Madison Square Garden.
Now, not only do the Red Storm have a bull's-eye on their back, but they also have a cyclone of controversy enveloping them, following their 65-63 win over Rutgers in the second round of the Big East tournament.
In the final 4.9 seconds of a chaotic last minute of play, Rutgers had the ball, trailing by two, having to go the length of the court. An attempted half-court pass to Rutgers forward Gilvydas Biruta was broken up by the defense, and the ball wound up in St. John's forward Justin Brownlee's hands. Game over, right?
Well, yes -- except it shouldn't have been. Brownlee traveled and stepped out of bounds, before hurling the ball way up into the stands in celebration -- all while there was still a second left on the clock. But the referees blew the call, allowing the game to end on the spot.
Big East commissioner John Marinatto issued a statement soon after the game, acknowledging that "two separate officiating errors occurred," but "neither error is reviewable or correctable under NCAA playing rules."
John Adams, the NCAA's head of officiating, told ESPN.com's Andy Katz that the referees' performance was "unacceptable."
Rutgers coach Mike Rice took the high road in his postgame comments to the media.
"There was a mistake. They will admit it," Rice said. "I made several mistakes, my players made several mistakes. ... We have the greatest officials in America."
"I'll have to go back and watch," St. John's coach Steve Lavin said at the beginning of his news conference. "It was kind of a chaotic flurry of sequences. And so, to be honest, I was trying to patch it together from the players and coaches in the locker room. And so until I actually see, can actually review the game and the closing moments, I wouldn't be informed enough to really speak about it."
"I just let my emotions get to me. I was just trying to throw [the ball] up so the time would expire," Brownlee said. "Unfortunately I threw it too early. Fortunately time did expire and we came up with the win."
"I didn't realize I was out of bounds," Brownlee added. "But fortunately it doesn't matter now. I thought time had expired."
"We'll take it, man," St. John's guard Dwight Hardy added. "We just want to move on and advance."
The end-of-game drama will be what's talked about in the aftermath of this game. Perhaps lost is the larger picture -- more specifically, that this St. John's team has struggled in its past three games. The Red Storm lost at 12th-place Seton Hall by 14 on March 3, trailed 15th-place South Florida with less than 10 minutes remaining two nights later and now got a big break to help them get past 13th-place Rutgers.
Is the glass half-empty or half-full? Count Lavin among those who are thinking positive.
"Today I felt we had something to do with making our breaks," Lavin said. "And while Rutgers performed valiantly and deserves credit for bringing a really high level of intensity and a well-devised game plan that was executed to perfection, our players also did some things well so we could have a couple more points than Rutgers did at the end of the game."
He's right. For instance, Hardy and Sean Evans each sank a pair of clutch free throws in the final minute, after Rutgers had retaken the lead for the first time since the opening minute, 61-60. The Red Storm shot 18-for-23 (78.3 percent) overall from the charity stripe.
But they also buckled under pressure in other spots in the final minute -- and not just on the final play. Brownlee also missed the front end of a one-and-one on the foul line, D.J. Kennedy missed one of two and Hardy lost the ball out of bounds on a pass thrown right to him, allowing Rutgers another chance to retake the lead and potentially win the game with 13.4 seconds remaining.
There's been much talk about how this St. John's team of nine seniors is one of the most experienced squads in the country. But these seniors are treading unfamiliar ground. Two weeks ago, St. John's received a national ranking for the first time in more than a decade -- instant target on its back. Now, the Red Storm are playing as one of the favorites in the Big East tournament, which they haven't won since 2000, before embarking on their first Big Dance since 2002.
These players might be seniors -- but let's face it, they've never been through anything like this before.
"I told the team that when you step into the postseason, it's a different animal," Lavin said. "It's thinner air, and teams are galvanized and playing with a purpose."
On the bright side, St. John's is in the Big East quarterfinals for the first time since 2003. And the Red Storm now are 8-1 at Madison Square Garden, including wins over the top two seeds in this tournament.
On a dark note, next up is No. 4 seed Syracuse on Thursday afternoon -- the only team to beat them at MSG, 76-59 back on Jan. 12.
Glass half-empty, or glass half-full?
Granted, that game was two months ago. But Syracuse is still playing that 2-3 zone, which forced St. John's to shoot just 21-for-57 (36.8 percent) from the field. And the Orange are still among the top 10 teams in the country in defensive field goal percentage (39.1) and blocked shots per game (6.7).
Seton Hall employed a zone in its win over St. John's last week, and South Florida and Rutgers featured a zone extensively as well. There's no question St. John's looks more comfortable operating against a man-to-man, with Hardy able to take his defender one-on-one off the dribble and players making backcut after backcut to the basket.
"They got a terrific zone," Hardy said of Syracuse. "They're long; they're big. We just gonna have to find ways to get the ball in the middle, and just space 'em out for driving lanes and short-corner passes out to our bigs.
"I mean, we feel that we've been playing better against zones down the stretch, so we feel like we can come into the game with a great mindset and be ready to play them."
Well, we know which perspective Hardy is taking. Same one as his coach.
There's more than a few sips left.
Slumping St. John's faces a rematch with Syracuse today. Why all the optimism?