Looking back at St. John’s magical 1984-85 season that ended in the Final Four, one thing sticks in Mark Jackson’s craw 35 years later.
St. John’s was 31-4 that season, with the last three losses coming against powerful Georgetown and Patrick Ewing, but despite being ranked No. 3 in both college basketball polls entering the NCAA Tournament, it was given the fourth No. 1 seed. That meant St. John’s faced the Hoyas in the national semifinals rather than a potential championship matchup in Lexington, Kentucky.
By no means would Jackson suggest that might have changed the outcome of St. John’s season-ending 77-59 semifinal loss, but he can’t help but wonder if a title-game meeting might have generated a different dynamic. Instead, it was Big East rival Villanova, which was 0-3 against St. John’s in 1984-85, that got the last crack at the Hoyas and pulled a 66-64 upset in what came to be called “The Perfect Game.”
“We should have faced each other in the national championship game,” Jackson recently told Newsday of the SJU-Georgetown rivalry. “We had great success against Villanova during the year with all due respect to them winning the championship. But Georgetown and us being No. 1 and No. 2 pretty much all year, we should have never had to face each other in the semifinals.”
Jackson praised the game plan crafted by Villanova coach Rollie Massimino, who slowed the pace, and the execution of Ed Pinckney, Dwayne McClain, Gary McLain, Harold Jensen and Harold Pressley, who combined to shoot an NCAA Tournament record 78.6% (22-for-28), including 9-for-10 shooting in the second half.
“Villanova put together a perfect game,” Jackson said. “They minimized their mistakes, they were patient, they played solid defense and they believed. I think their advantage was being in the Big East Conference, so they had witnessed the monster. It wasn’t like they heard about them all year long. They had faced them, and they knew, ‘OK, we can play with them.’ That was the mindset, and they pulled it off.”
'Nova lost two previous meetings with the Hoyas that season, but they were low-scoring affairs decided by two and seven points. By contrast, after scoring a one-point win at Georgetown in January to gain the No. 1 ranking, St. John’s lost the next three meetings by 16, 12 and 18 points.
St. John’s center Bill Wennington battled Georgetown’s Ewing for four straight seasons and would continue that rivalry in the NBA. “John Thompson got the most out of his guys, and they played a physical style of basketball,” Wennington said of the Hoyas’ hard-nosed coach. “I credit them a lot with helping us because we realized that, if we wanted to compete with Georgetown, we were going to have to play that physical game.
“Georgetown just matched up well against us going through the Big East Tournament and, obviously, the Final Four. They played a box-and-one on Chris and made it tough for him to get the ball, took us out of our offense.”
In the Final Four loss, the Hoyas held All-American Chris Mullin to eight points on 4-for-8 shooting with no foul shots, and St. Johns committed 18 turnovers.
“Georgetown was an incredible team,” Mullin said. “They went to three Final Fours in four years. They had a perfect balance of long, athletic wings, they had Patrick in the back and a seven-footer [Ralph Dalton] backing him up. They had a full-court press, half-court trap, they would do everything.
“The games we were successful against them were when we attacked that press and got some easy baskets and loosened things up. But at that time, we would try to break the press, and as we regrouped, they would put the half-court trap on us. They were relentless.”
The Hoyas’ renowned toughness is what resonates with 95-year-old former St. John’s coach Lou Carnesecca. “You’d think you were at war, and you were,” Carnesecca said. “Rollie came up with a great, great plan, and it worked. It will go down in the annals as one of the most perfect games because the margin was very small when you played them.”
Indeed, despite the Wildcats’ brilliant shooting, they committed 17 turnovers and allowed the Hoyas to get a whopping 25 more field-goal attempts. In Mullin’s view, the absence of a shot clock and the three-point line in that era were major factors that allowed Villanova to control the pace.
“If you feel you’re overmatched, there was a way to keep the score close, and that’s what Villanova did,” Mullin said. “Villanova played them well all the time, and they had a hard time beating us. I was texting with Ed Pinckney the other day. He said, ‘We couldn’t beat you for whatever reason.’ But the most important thing is they made 80 percent of their shots. A lot of teams tried [slowing the pace] with Georgetown, and it worked for 25 minutes but not the whole game.”
Still stinging from their semifinal loss to the Hoyas, there was no question St. John’s players were rooting for Villanova. “With us being so crushed, we didn’t want Georgetown to win,” Wennington said. “Villanova played great, coach Massimino was phenomenal in his game plan prep, and they did what they needed to do.
“Like them or not, Georgetown was a great team. They had some great players on that team, and I love Patrick to this day. But during those times, there was not much love lost between Georgetown and St. John’s.”