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Malik Boothe: "We closed strong"

St. John's Sean Evans (5) scores in the

St. John's Sean Evans (5) scores in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against South Florida in New York. (March 5, 2011) Credit: AP

For the past eight years, the postseason was a time for recrimination and regret at St. John's, but no longer. The senior class of 2011 -- 10 players strong counting student assistant Rob Thomas -- closed the regular season in style with a 72-56 victory over South Florida that gave No. 15 St. John's a 20-10 record and a share of third place in the Big East at 12-6.

It also was the ninth win in the past 11 games for the Red Storm, a stretch that includes victories over four ranked teams. "We closed the season strong," said senior point guard Malik Boothe. "We've got to use that momentum and stay locked in. Like coach says, 'The air starts to get thinner.'"

Boothe, of course, was quoting first-year St. John's coach Steve Lavin, who provided the leadership that wrought what might have been considered a miracle a year ago. Although the Red Storm didn't play as well this weekend in losing at Seton Hall before putting away a pesky South Florida team with a second half rally highlighted by a Sean Evans dunk (pictured), that can be attributed to the distractions associated with preparations for Senior Night and all the attendant emotions.

It will be back to business in practice on Monday as St. John's, which was dropped to the No. 5 seed in the Big East tournament by tiebreaking procedures, enjoys a first-round bye and prepares for the winner of Tuesday's Seton Hall-Rutgers game in a 2 p.m. second-round game Wednesday at Madison Square Garden. If the Red Storm can win that one, it would advance to the quarterfinals against Syracuse at 2 p.m. Thursday at the Garden.

No matter what happens in the conference tournament, there's no doubt St. John's will hear its name called for the first time since 2002 when the NCAA Tournament field is announced on Selection Sunday. With six wins against ranked teams, the Red Storm should fall somewhere between a No. 4 and No. 8 seed, depending on how it fares in the Big East tourney.

"Our message in this run of 9 of 11 [wins] is to not to be satisfied, keep the hard edge and remain connected to the essentials that have led to our success," Lavin said. "Now, we're moving into the single-elimination format of the season.

"The postseason will be a new set of challenges. In the Big East tournament, there's familiarity. The NCAA Tournament will be uncharted territory because you don't know what you don't know. But the fact they're seniors and they're playing so well and the fact they continue to exceed expectations, there's no reason to believe we can't be successful in this next stage of the season. But we understand it's no easy task with the competition we're going to be facing."

As confident as he might be in his team, Lavin and his staff are taking no chances. They donned black sneakers for the Senior Night blackout, but the coach said they plan to return to the white sneakers in which they've had so much success down the stretch.

New York Sports