SYRACUSE - Maybe St. John's had no reason to believe it could be competitive with No. 1 Syracuse, but why take the floor if you don't believe in miracles? And for better than 11 minutes, the Red Storm was able to hang with the Orange when a three-pointer by D.J. Kennedy made it a three-point deficit with 8:29 left in the first half.
But then the Orange kicked it into gear, putting together a 17-4 run thanks to six points apiece by subs Kris Joseph and Scoop Jardine for a 16-point lead. From that point on, it wasn't really competitive again as Syracuse pulled away to an 85-66 victory that clinched the Big East regular-season title and gave a Carrier Dome crowd of 26,081 a chance to celebrate the best team in the country last night.
"That's the best team I've played since I've been at St. John's," junior forward Justin Burrell said. "It was definitely transition that beat us."
In truth, there was no one sequence that could be called a turning point. Syracuse (28-2, 15-2) can beat you a dozen different ways, and it practiced them all against the Red Storm (15-14, 5-12). On senior night, the best games were played by the two Orange players who were honored. Andy Rautins (14 points, seven assists) was great shooting from outside and finding the open man. Arinze Onuaku was unstoppable on the inside with 21 points, eight rebounds and two blocks.
Filling in around the edges for Syracuse were Wes Johnson (13 points, five boards, four assists, four blocks), Joseph (13 points, six rebounds) and Jardine (10 points). When St. John's went up to guard the shooters, the ball found its way inside to Onuaku for easy baskets that helped the Orange score 46 points in the paint.
"When he catches it, you just have to hope he misses," Burrell said of Onuaku. "They spread the floor all the way out, and it's one-on-one every time he catches it."
Syracuse dominated St. John's on the fast break, where it enjoyed a 22-4 edge, including 17-0 in the first half. "That's where they really hurt us was in transition," said Paris Horne, who had 18 points and hit 5 of 9 three-point attempts for the Red Storm. "They're a great team. They deserve to be No. 1."
St. John's coach Norm Roberts benched regular starters D.J. Kennedy and Sean Evans because they were late for a meeting Monday, but Kennedy still managed to lead the Red Storm with 19 points in 26 minutes. Midway through the first half, the Storm also lost Dwight Hardy with a sprained left knee. Roberts said there is no structural damage.
The Red Storm twice got within 11 in the second half but no closer and trailed by 22 just before the end. Now, they have to win on the road Friday at DePaul just to match last season's 6-12 conference record.
"I hate it with all my heart," Burrell said of all the losing. "I believe we got better [this season], but the facts show we didn't."