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Kennedy paces Red Storm to 20th win

South Florida's Ron Anderson Jr. (1) tries to

South Florida's Ron Anderson Jr. (1) tries to defend against a drive by St. John's Sean Evans (5) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game. (March 5, 2011) Credit: AP

They don't keep records for this sort of thing, so Steve Lavin went with his gut and said St. John's might be the first team in the history of college basketball with a senior class of 10 players, including Rob Thomas, who became a student assistant during the season. The odds of such a thing, Lavin said, "are right up there with unicorns and Halley's comet."

Although they finished 17-16 last season and made the NIT, the Red Storm's Class of 2011 finished 6-12 in Big East play for the second straight season, buried in 13th place. But by the time they reached the end of their senior night after a 72-56 thumping of South Florida last night, St. John's seniors were the proud owners of a No. 15 national ranking, a 20-10 record and a Big East record of 12-6, tied for third in the nation's toughest conference.

When Lavin arrived in Queens last April, he brought a resume that included six 20-win seasons and six NCAA bids in seven years at UCLA. So in one sense, this was nothing new. But under the daunting circumstances, it has to rank as the best coaching job of his career.

"This is so unique," Lavin said of the experience. "It's always difficult comparing teams, but this journey with the Johnnies in our inaugural season as a staff has been a real pleasure, an honor, a privilege to participate in. That's what I tried to express today before the game and at the end of the game. We're privileged to have the opportunity to coach such a wonderful group of young people who have experienced a breakthrough and the thrill of success at a very high level."

South Florida took a 32-30 halftime lead and still led 47-44 with 9:36 left. But St. John's went on a game-ending 28-9 run to put a bow on the proceedings, thanks in particular to a couple of offensive rebounds by Paris Horne. The first led to a Horne three-pointer for a 50-47 lead, and the second off a missed foul shot led to a Horne putback for a 57-49 lead.

D.J. Kennedy led four in double figures for St. John's with 16 points, followed by Dwight Hardy (14), Justin Brownlee (13) and Horne (11), and Sean Evans had nine points and a team-high nine rebounds. Augustus Gilchrist topped the Bulls (9-22, 3-15) with 16 points.

The seniors celebrated their final appearance at Carnesecca Arena with a sellout crowd of 5,602 by wearing the black uniforms in which they were 0-5, and the fans all received black promotional T-shirts. Every senior heard his name chanted as he was introduced with his family and received a framed white home jersey.

When the game began, it was obvious they were over-amped up. "It was a lot of emotion in the game playing in front of our families, our friends, our last game in Carnesecca," Horne said. "We all wanted to play good. It was a wacky game for us. We were just excited. Once the second half came, we settled down and got in the flow of our style of play and were able to impose our will."

Reaching the 20-win plateau to end the regular season was another cherished benchmark for this team. "Normally, it means you can get into the [NCAA] Tournament, and that's something we wanted to achieve," Malik Boothe said. "No St. John's team has had that since 2000, and for us to rebuild the way we did is special for us."

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