St. John's players were intent on making a deep run in the Big East Tournament. If that meant running over Marquette in the second round Wednesday at Madison Square Garden, so much the better, because the sting of losing to the Golden Eagles on an overtime buzzer-beater two weeks earlier at Alumni Hall still was fresh.
But no team in the Big East has more experience at winning the close ones than Marquette, which scored its seventh victory by three points or fewer by pulling out a 57-55 decision over St. John's. This one could hurt a lot longer for the Red Storm because it might have ended their season and possibly the tenure of coach Norm Roberts at six years.
Players and coach alike will be on pins and needles the next few days waiting to see if St. John's (17-15) receives an NIT bid and to learn whether Roberts will get a reprieve. Asked if the Red Storm merits an NIT bid, Roberts said, "Yeah, I think we do. We play in the best conference in America. We played really well at the end of the year. I'd love to keep playing, and I think it would just be another step for our players and our program."
Coming off its most impressive performance of the season in a 22-point blowout of Connecticut, St. John's could have taken a major step forward with an upset of fifth-seeded Marquette (21-10) to reach today's quarterfinals against Villanova (24-6). But the Storm failed to execute in the first half, shooting 29.6 percent from the field and missing all seven three-point attempts. St. John's trailed by 14 before cutting the halftime deficit to 27-17, which was the fewest points it scored in a half all season.
But the Red Storm found inspiration in the second half, making a 20-6 run to take a 46-42 lead with 7:07 left. Paris Horne had five of his 10 points in the run and made a steal that led to the second of consecutive dunks by Justin Brownlee that had the crowd roaring.
Horne's foul shot gave St. John's its last lead at 53-52 with 2:22 left. But after making nine three-pointers in 17 attempts, Marquette had one more arrow left in the quiver. David Cubillan sent it through the Red Storm's heart to take a 55-53 lead with 1:10 left.
D.J. Kennedy, who matched Sean Evans' 12 points to lead St. John's, lost the handle on his dribble and got tied up by Lazar Hayward. The ball went to Marquette on the possession arrow, and Hayward (20 points, nine rebounds) then was fouled and knocked down two shots with 35.3 seconds left to secure the win.
"It was great defense by Hayward," Kennedy said. "I felt like I had an opportunity to make another play, and I just didn't come through."
Marquette coach Buzz Williams later offered Roberts heartfelt consolation.
"Coach Roberts doesn't get the credit he's deserving for how hard his team plays," Williams said. "I think teams play hard for one another and for their coach. That's what St. John's does. That's what they did yesterday, and I thought they were the hardest-playing team today."
But it wasn't hard enough to affect the bottom line. Whether it was enough to earn an NIT bid or save Roberts, we'll see soon enough.