Finishing has been the problem all season long for a St. John's team that had talent to compete but lacked the ability to close out games with a double-digit lead. Apparently, the Red Storm had enough of losing.
With Connecticut having cut a 17-point first-half deficit to nine with just over eight minutes to play, St. John's found its resolve and fought back to put the game away with a 10-0 run full of effort plays by D.J. Kennedy, Sean Evans and Malik Boothe to score a stunning 73-51 victory over the Huskies in the first round of the Big East Conference tournament Tuesday afternoon at Madison Square Garden.
The key sequence came when Kennedy got an offensive rebound to extend a possession and then fed Justin Brownlee for a dunk and a 57-42 lead. After a UConn miss, Kennedy drove the lane and made a clever underhand dish to Evans for a layup and a 17-point lead. Then Boothe ended the game-changing sequence with a fast-break layup.
It was the first time St. John's (17-14) has beaten 12th-seeded Connecticut (17-15) since 2002 after nine straight losses. The Red Storm, seeded 13th, meets No. 5 Marquette in a second-round game Wednesday. Evans totaled 19 points and 10 rebounds, Brownlee and Paris Horne each scored 13, and Boothe had eight points and seven assists.
UConn, which finished its season with four straight losses, was "led" by Kemba Walker's 12 points and got 11 from Gavin Edwards and 10 from Stanley Robinson.
UConn coach Jim Calhoun benched seniors Jerome Dyson, Robinson and Edwards for the last 16:04 of their regular season-ending loss at South Florida and said he would start the lineup that finished that game. But Calhoun relented and went with regular starters Dyson and Robinson and Edwards getting his usual big minutes off the bench.
Maybe Calhoun should have had the courage of his original conviction. The Red Storm jumped out to a 15-6 lead and played an aggressive, attacking brand of basketball. The players have said coach Norm Roberts' job status isn't their focus, but the Red Storm certainly played inspired as indicated by all the second effort on the boards leading to second shots.
After the Huskies cut the deficit to 22-16, St. John's went on a 13-2 run for its biggest lead of the first half at 35-18. Evans had all eight of his first-half points in the stretch, and Brownlee had the other five. Boothe, who displayed some strong emotion the day before the game while discussing how much St. John's players want to win, made the feeds to Evans for a dunk and fast-break layup at the end of that run.
With 37.3 seconds left in the first half, forward Justin Burrell was called for a blocking foul above the three-point arc and protested too strongly, getting a technical that counted as his third personal. But Walker, who had hit a three moments earlier, made only one foul shot to cut the halftime margin to 35-22.
St. John's was in a position similar to the leads it built all season against top teams only to fail to finish the deal too often. So, the Red Storm was facing the same question that had nagged them all season as they began the second half.
Calhoun benched Dyson at the start of the second half and didn't put him in until 11:07 remained. An instant turnover resulted in the hook for Dyson at 10:42. Dyson's replacement, Darius Smith, quickly turned the ball over to Boothe, whose fast-break layup gave St. John's a 48-34 advantage. But Dyson returned a couple minutes later with UConn fighting desperately to get back in the game, but St. John's wouldn't let them in, closing the door down the stretch on the Huskies' season.