St. John's head coach Steve Lavin reacts in the second...

St. John's head coach Steve Lavin reacts in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Los Angeles. (Feb. 5, 2011) Credit: AP

An exhausting, emotional week in which St. John's blew out then-No. 3 Duke, hung tough for a Big East win over Rutgers and then flew cross country for coach Steve Lavin's losing homecoming game at UCLA is behind the Red Storm. What lies in front is the stretch drive for a coveted NCAA bid.

The first of eight remaining conference games is against No. 9 Connecticut (18-4, 6-4) Thursday night at the Garden, and the question is whether St. John's players have something left in reserve after playing eight straight ranked opponents before meeting Rutgers and UCLA.

Lavin said the Red Storm has plenty of factors to consider for motivation. "Their guard play is as impressive as anyone we've played," he said, referring primarily to Kemba Walker. "It's a critical game if you look at the Big East standings, and we're coming off a loss. This is a game of significance."

St. John's (13-9, 5-5) leveled its Big East record with the win over Rutgers, but two of its remaining four home games are at the Garden against ranked opponents, including a game against No. 4 Pitt on Feb. 19. A win over UConn would be the Red Storm's fifth this season over a ranked opponent and boost its NCAA credentials.

But stopping Walker, who is averaging 23.2 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.2 assists will be a huge test. "Sometimes, you just can't slow guys down," St. John's guard Paris Horne said Wednesday.

"You can try to just make it tough for them all night, give them tough looks, have a hand in his face as much at all times. But guys like that pretty much have the green light.

"You've got to try to wear him down. He's going to hit shots. He's a great player. He's going to get to the basket at times. But playing defense is about having pride, trying to get a stop and just fighting through it."

UConn also can be tough inside with 6-9 Alex Oriakhi (10.5 points, 8.6 rebounds) and 7-foot shot-blocker Charles Okwandu. Red Storm guard Dwight Hardy is coming off a career-high 32-point effort at UCLA, but he's going to find it tough to penetrate to the basket. St. John's forward Justin Brownlee's scoring is off since he injured his left thumb.

At the same time, the Huskies have shown some vulnerability lately, losing at home to Louisville and Syracuse before pulling out a two-point win Saturday at Seton Hall.

DON'T MISS THIS LIMITED-TIME OFFER1 5 months for only $1Save on Unlimited Digital Access