It was a long, physically brutal journey for St. John's six-man recruiting class that shared a foxhole and built a remarkable esprit de corps. But it ended with a 73-59 pounding from a veteran Pittsburgh team in the first round of the Big East Tournament Tuesday at Madison Square Garden, and now the question is whether conference Rookie of the Year Moe Harkless will return for next season with his band of brothers.
Harkless led the Red Storm (13-19) against Pitt (17-15). He shot 10-for-16 and had 25 points and nine rebounds. After the game, he became the second St. John's player ever to win the rookie award, joining David Russell in 1980. When it came time to answer the question on everybody's mind about possibly leaving for the NBA, Harkless stayed firmly on the fence.
"I don't know what I'm going to do yet," the Forest Hills resident said. "I still have to talk to my coaches and my family."
Asked if he's tempted by NBA riches, he admitted: "That's every kid's dream. It's definitely tempting. But I have to decide what's the best situation and the best thing I should do."
If you put it to a vote of his teammates, there's no doubt what the outcome would be. "I'm trying to keep Moe here," guard D'Angelo Harrison said. "I'm pretty sure he'll stay . . . If everybody comes back, I feel we'll be very good."
Of course, there have been rumors that Harrison, too, might consider the one-and-done route, but he answered emphatically in the negative about that. "I'm coming back," he said. "Absolutely, I'll be back."
Over the course of 32 games, St. John's six newcomers grew stronger physically and tougher mentally. But the Panthers, who meet Georgetown (22-7) Wednesday, are the epitome of Big East strength and toughness, and they beat up the Storm's kids for the second time in a six-day span. St. John's did a much better job rebounding in the rematch, getting nipped in that department 40-39. But other than Harkless, the shooting was below par.
God'sgift Achiuwa, who had 12 rebounds, was 1-for-10, Phil Greene went 0-for-7 and Harrison was 4-for-18 and 0-for-6 on threes. He finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds.
Pitt shot 45.1 percent, led by 20 points from Ashton Gibbs and 15 from Nasir Robinson, who shot 7-for-10.
"We weren't able to finish at the rim," said St. John's assistant Mike Dunlap, who has been running the team while coach Steve Lavin recuperates from prostate cancer surgery. "We had a lot of easy baskets that didn't go in. We let that bleed into our defense."
In the first half, St. John's built a 26-20 lead as Harkless scored half of its points, but Pitt finished the half on a 13-2 run by wearing the Red Storm down under the basket. In the second half, the Panthers pulled away to lead by as many as 15 points.
Asked to describe the difficulty of what St. John's went through this year, there was no mistaking the pride Harkless took in what this team accomplished. "It was pretty tough, but everybody is tough on the team," he said. "Nobody gave up on each other. Even on our days off, we'd be in the gym playing pickup. I think this group has a bright future. We're young and we're talented."