- Ian O'Connor, ESPN Senior Writer
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NEW YORK -- The refs blew it, only the oldest story in sports. Justin Brownlee traveled, stepped out of bounds with 1.7 seconds to play and all but begged for a technical foul by firing the ball into the stands before the final horn was blown.
Brownlee did everything but kidnap the Lindbergh baby on the final possession of St. John's 65, Rutgers 63, and yet a zebra-striped jury of three -- Jim Burr, Tim Higgins and Earl Walton -- let him get away with it, sending the Red Storm into a Big East tournament quarterfinal duel with Syracuse and sending the spirited kids from Rutgers home.
"It's got to be a mistake," Rutgers coach Mike Rice said. "I watched it on YouTube."
So did thousands of basketball fans on the western banks of the Hudson, many of them raging into the night about an injustice that might or might not have cost the Scarlet Knights a chance to write a hell of a postseason tale. The Garden gave one to the home team, and the Jersey boys were dispatched into the gathering darkness and sent back to the Lincoln Tunnel, where the only assessed toll is collected on the way in.
If the majority of these Scarlet Knights -- along with their overcaffeinated coach -- will be back next season, the same cannot be said of Steve Lavin's first St. John's team, a team of scarred, hardscrabble seniors that made a louder statement than the silent whistles tethered to the three stooges.
Good teams get better breaks. Charmed teams weather bad bounces and maneuver their way around the officials' human flaws to make deep runs in the NCAA tournament.
St. John's has declared itself one of those teams. St. John's is strong enough, and opportunistic enough, to reach the Final Four for the first time since 1985, a notion Dwight Hardy embraced on his postgame walk to the winning locker room.
"I think we have a great shot of making it to the Final Four," Hardy told ESPNNewYork.com. "If we can just play our style and get teams to play the way we want to play, we can beat anybody. We showed it here by beating Duke."
Hardy said that if the Red Storm continue to execute and continue to make a commitment on the defensive side of the ball, "At least, at worst, we should be in the Sweet 16."
Could St. John's do the unthinkable and win it all?
"That's going to be tough," Hardy said, "but if we do what we do and play our style, I think we can. I'm not going to lie to you. I think we can get there. It's all on us."
In the end, Wednesday's bizarre climax said more about St. John's immediate future than it did about the Rutgers robbery. We already knew the Red Storm were tough, resilient and bold. Now we know they are lucky, too.
Serious contenders often are.
"We dodged a bullet," Lavin said, "and we talked about that to the team. But [my players] did enough things over the course of the game to be in position to dodge that bullet. We made enough stops and enough free throws to have a couple more points than Rutgers at the end of the game."
It was the coach's way of saying luck is the residue of design.
The Big East admitted the refs made two mistakes on Brownlee's walk on the wild side (it was actually three, if you want to get technical about the technical for heaving the ball), but Lavin wasn't budging from his position that his team earned its victory.
Still, the winning coach saw his seven-year UCLA career pass before him when Brownlee prematurely joined him on the sideline. "I felt like I'd seen a ghost in the Garden," Lavin said.
If only because he did.
Lou Carnesecca sat behind the St. John's bench wearing a bright red tie and a smile that betrayed his belief that this team can advance to the back end of March.
"All they have to do is make shots," Carnesecca said, "because you're not going to beat them. If they get going and win a couple of games, anything can happen."
The 86-year-old Hall of Famer raved about St. John's intelligence and poise. "They didn't crack today, and they could have," Carnesecca said. "These kids have rejuvenated the city, and it feels good. It means we're back."
Carnesecca went on about how he's "flying high" when he walks the streets these days and went on about Lavin's ability to inspire his seniors to play as one.
"He's the best-prepared coach ever to come to St. John's," Carnesecca said. "If you look at Frank McGuire, Joe Lapchick, Buck Freeman and me, Steve had more experience than all of us before we got this job. He's ready made. He's ready to do big things."
How big? That question deserves a different answer today than it did in November. Lavin described his Red Storm as the lumpenproletariat trying to make the hard economic climb into the Big East's "aristocracy of teams."
But why wait two or three years for next season's parade of recruits to blossom? In a wide-open NCAA tournament, St. John's has the requisite experience and big-time star (Hardy) to make an unimagined journey to who knows where.
"Coming in all we wanted was to say we went out by making [the NCAAs]," Hardy said of his fellow seniors. "But with the growth we've shown, we know now we can do some damage in the tournament."
If nothing else, Wednesday's finish suggested that damage could be extensive.