Dwight Hardy #12 of the St.John's Red Storm controls the...

Dwight Hardy #12 of the St.John's Red Storm controls the ball against the DePaul Blue Demons. (Feb. 23, 2011) Credit: Jim McIsaac

St. John's means business.

Coming off an emotional upset of No. 4 Pitt on Saturday at Madison Square Garden, a game that elevated the Red Storm to its first national ranking since 2000, coach Steve Lavin warned his team that it had a responsibility to protect its momentum and build on it. Lowly DePaul seemed the kind of opponent that could be easily overlooked despite taking No. 15 Villanova into overtime Saturday in Philadelphia before losing.

But Lavin clearly has his players' attention. St. John's played tenacious end-to-end defense, pounded the boards and got 21 points from Dwight Hardy to roll to its fifth straight win in dominating fashion over the Blue Demons, 76-51, last night at sold-out Carnesecca Arena.

"Tonight's victory is an example of a team developing a hard edge and maturity that will bode well for us coming down the homestretch and into the postseason," Lavin said. "Would we sustain a level of focus, effort and execution for the entire game? There's a natural tendency in human nature to exhale or be complacent or distracted when we've hit some benchmarks recently like being in the top 25. So, I thought they really passed the test and answered the bell."

The victory assured St John's (18-9, 10-5 Big East) of a winning conference record, which might have been the last thing it needed to lock up an NCAA Tournament bid if any doubt remained about its resume. D.J. Kennedy played a terrific all-around game with 11 points, 10 rebounds and three assists, and Paris Horne added 14 points. Cleveland Melvin topped DePaul (7-20, 1-14) with 16 points.

The Red Storm shot 54.4 percent from the field to 30.9 percent for the Blue Demons, finished with a whopping 43-29 rebounding margin and outscored DePaul 42-18 in points in the paint and 19-0 in fast-break points.

St. John's has been a powerhouse at Madison Square Garden this season with a 7-1 record that includes five wins over teams ranked in the top 13. But it was only 3-2 at Carnesecca previously.

"We talked a lot about when we play here, we don't play as good as at the Garden," Hardy said. "We didn't want that to happen again. We wanted to get a huge win by a large amount of points . . . We've started good at Carnesecca, but we haven't finished good. Tonight, we wanted to make sure we had no letups, and we did a great job."

St. John's focus kicked in with an early 9-0 run, including two baskets by Hardy for a 15-7 lead. The Red Storm played absolutely great defense and was especially effective under the boards at both ends of the floor leading by up to 19 points before settling for a 37-22 halftime lead.

St. John's opened the second half with a 24-9 run for a 30-point lead at 61-31. The highlight was an alley-oop pass from Malik Boothe to freshman Dwayne Polee for a high-flying fast-break dunk. Now, it's on to Philadelphia for bigger game when St. John's faces Villanova at the Wells Fargo Center Saturday afternoon in a nationally televised game.

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