The questions for St. John's coach Norm Roberts have been hard this season as he nears the end of the timeline for a turnaround in his six-season regime. As much as Roberts has worked to prevent his situation from becoming a distraction to his players, they have felt the pressure, too.
Forward Sean Evans bristled at the line of questioning after one recent loss. When point guard Malik Boothe, who is particularly close to Roberts, was asked Monday why anyone should believe St. John's could make a run in the Big East Tournament, a surge of emotion brought him to the point of tears. The question was a blow to his self-esteem as a competitor, and it showed.
Boothe's response showed on the court, too, yesterday at Madison Square Garden. Facing UConn guards Kemba Walker and Jerome Dyson, who are considered the fastest, most athletic backcourt pairing in the Big East, Boothe played a major role in forcing them to shoot 6-for-23 and total 12 of the Huskies' 20 turnovers.
The whole Red Storm lineup played with heart and determination in a surprising 73-51 blowout of the Huskies, but none more so than Boothe. He had his finest all-around game of the season with eight points on 4-for-4 shooting, nine assists, four steals and only two turnovers.
Asked if his emotional display, which was witnessed only by a small group of reporters and Roberts, might have inspired his teammates, Boothe said: "I don't know if they know about what I did yesterday. But I know D.J. [Kennedy] and Paris [Horne] were talking before the game about how it all started with me today. If we were going to win, I would have to be the guy controlling the team."
Whether they were playing for their coach or themselves, it certainly seemed the Johnnies were an inspired bunch. "You saw how everybody on the bench was cheering us on," Boothe said. "I think that was maybe the most heart and passion we've shown all year."
Boothe made a bunch of effort plays, but the one that stood out came midway through the second half. After forcing a turnover by Dyson that prompted Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun to pull his senior guard, Boothe then stripped the ball from Dyson's replacement, Darius Smith, and drove for a fast-break layup and a 48-34 lead.
"I heard Sean tell me, 'Get into him. Take it from him,' " Boothe said of forward Sean Evans. "I took it. I don't want Sean to beat me up."
For much of this season, the 5-9 Boothe has been beaten up by the losing on the way to a 6-12 conference record and battered by the criticism that comes with it. There was a point when Boothe was limited on defense by a groin injury.
"He's a tough kid who never takes a day off," Roberts said. "I told him, 'As the head coach and as the point guard, we're going to take most of the heat. That's just how it is. When the team plays well, we probably get too much praise, and when we don't play well, we're going to get it.'
"He understands that. I'm happy for him because he gives his whole heart and soul every single day. All he wants to do is win."
That was obvious against Connecticut, and Boothe's feelings still were bubbling after the game. Discussing all the second-effort plays, Boothe said, "That's all effort, and that comes from passion."
Sensing his emotions rising to the surface again, Boothe paused as teammate Justin Burrell rested an affectionate hand on his shoulder and then added, "That should be enough said."