- Kieran Darcy, ESPNNewYork.com
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DENVER -- In the immediate aftermath of St. John's loss to Gonzaga on Thursday night, with several players crying over the end of their season -- and, for many, their college careers -- coach Steve Lavin decided to write some things on a board in the team's locker room.
The number 21, for the amount of wins St. John's accumulated this season. The number 12, for the amount of Big East conference wins. "Third," for finishing in a tie for third in the 16-team Big East, which sent a record-smashing 11 teams to the NCAA tournament. And "NCAA," for being one of those 11, going to the Big Dance for the first time since 2002.
"I really wanted the team -- the players -- to be aware, while it doesn't take the sting away from this loss, they set the bar high for anyone that follows," Lavin said in his postgame news conference.
After leaving the arena Thursday night, Lavin hosted a small get-together in his room at the team hotel, with members of his coaching staff, members of the athletic department, family and close friends.
"It was nice, just to unwind, decompress and reflect back on what a great run our seniors had," Lavin said Friday morning in the hotel lobby as the Red Storm prepared to board buses headed toward Denver International Airport. "It wasn't a joyous get-together, but it was nice, appropriate."
At least one player had a hard time falling asleep Thursday night. "I didn't even go to sleep until 4 in the morning," senior guard Dwight Hardy said. "I was just stressed out, knowing that I'm not gonna get another chance to play in the NCAA tournament. I wish I could rewind the game and start all over."
Hardy was asked whether there was a positive memory he could take away from this trip.
"Stepping on the court and seeing 'NCAA' in the middle of it -- that was something special, that's a once-in-a-lifetime thing for me," Hardy said. "I wish the outcome could have been different; I wish we could be playing tomorrow night. [But] it was just a great moment, and I'll never forget it."
It was a season filled with great moments, which won't soon be forgotten. And even though it ended in sorrow, these players will be able to appreciate it much better down the road.
"I feel like we've got a lot to be proud about," said D.J. Kennedy, who had to sit out the team's NCAA tournament game with an injured knee. "I tried to tell my teammates there's no reason to be down, we accomplished a lot, even more than we know. I feel like after time has set in, we'll realize how much we've accomplished."
The journey began way back on Oct. 15, the first day of practice. Lavin wrote some things on a board that day, too -- three areas he thought his team needed to improve in, based on watching film from last season: free throw shooting, shot selection and turnovers.
And the Red Storm, with the help of their new coaching staff, made remarkable progress.
On free throw shooting, St. John's went from 65.2 percent (No. 289 in country) to 71 percent (No. 109). Its overall shooting percentage went from 42.5 percent (No. 219) to 45.5 percent (No. 75). The turnover average ending up being the same (12.4 per game), but that still ranks rather high nationally (No. 83).
The games started with an exhibition against tiny Westmont College on Nov. 6 -- a 100-42 St. John's romp in front of 2,774 fans at Carnesecca Arena. And they ended against Gonzaga on St. Patrick's Day -- in front of 19,216 in person and a national television audience, right smack in the middle of March Madness.
There were a few low points along the way. The back-to-back losses to St. Bonaventure and Fordham in early December -- the second of which Lavin and his players actually credited as the turning point of their season. There also were the five losses in six games in January -- all coming against teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 poll.
But there were many more highlights. Winning the Great Alaska Shootout over Thanksgiving weekend. Taking the Holiday Festival trophy back home right before Christmas. And most of all, the electrifying wins over Duke, UConn and Pittsburgh at Madison Square Garden in January and February -- turning the Garden back into a home court and New York City back into a college basketball town.
Now these nine seniors are moving on: Malik Boothe, Justin Brownlee, Justin Burrell, Kevin Clark, Dele Coker, Sean Evans, Dwight Hardy, Paris Horne and D.J. Kennedy. Soon to be replaced by nine freshmen, the second-best recruiting class in the country behind only Kentucky's, according to ESPN.com.
But those incoming players' names won't appear in this space. Not yet. Because, before we all go on to the next one, it's time to appreciate this team and what it has done.
Four years ago, when most of these seniors arrived on the scene, St. John's was suffering through a period of irrelevance on the court and embarrassment off it. These players worked their butts off under former coach Norm Roberts and finally had a breakthrough in their final season, under Lavin and company.
"It feels good to know that we turned the program around, and just sets it up for the group of people that's coming in next year and the year after to continue the success," Hardy said. "I'm happy that I was a part of the team that did that."
"This young group coming in next year will be the youngest team in the country, [the] youngest team in St. John's history," Lavin said. "They have lofty standards now to live up to because of this group of seniors that put the foundation in place for the future of our program."
Next season's team and future St. John's teams might be more talented. They might go farther, maybe even to a Final Four.
But they'll never be able to accomplish what this group of seniors accomplished -- the group that pulled away from the Grand Hyatt in Denver a few minutes after noon Friday, heading home from the last road trip of their college careers.
They brought St. John's back to a national ranking, and the national consciousness. They brought St. John's back to the Big Dance. They brought St. John's back to the big time.
"They gave our coaching staff the ride of a lifetime," Lavin said.
Couldn't have said it better myself.
A memorable season of improvement and new excitement is over for St. John's.