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35 years ago, St. John's had the most magical season in its storied history

St. John's basketball coach Lou Carnesecca, center, flanked,

St. John's basketball coach Lou Carnesecca, center, flanked, by players from left, Ron Stewart, Chris Mullin and Bill Wennington, laugh as they hold the trophy for winning the Holiday Festival College Basketball tournament, Dec. 29, 1984 at Madison Square Garden. St. John's defeated North Carolina State 66-56. Credit: AP/G. PAUL BURNETT

It was the fall of 1981 in an apartment near the St. John’s campus in Queens. Chris Mullin, a schoolboy star from Xaverian in Brooklyn, and Bill Wennington, a Canadian who moved to Wheatley Heights and excelled at Long Island Lutheran, were sharing their first night together as roommates.

They were embarking on a four-year journey that would culminate with the greatest basketball team in St. John’s history reaching the 1985 Final Four in Lexington, Kentucky, along with fellow Big East powers Georgetown and Villanova, the only time in NCAA history that three schools from the same conference appeared together in the ultimate showcase. But on that first night together, Mullin and Wennington were two 18-year-old kids sharing dreams.

“We stayed up until 4 a.m. with no alcohol and no girls, and it was one of the best nights of our lives,” Wennington recalled in a recent Newsday interview. “We were talking about life and what high school was like and what our goals were. We both thought this team could be very good, we both wanted to get to the Final Four, we both thought we could win the national championship if we worked hard.”

The 2020 Final Four was scheduled for this weekend at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, but the entire tournament was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But it still may be celebrated as the 35th anniversary of that 1984-85 St. John’s team that was the quintessential basketball story spawned largely on the playgrounds and gyms of the New York metropolitan area, a truly special time for the “City Game.”

SPECIAL TEAM FOR LOOIE

He’s 95 years old now, and that team holds a dear place in the heart of Hall of Fame coach Lou Carnesecca. “We had a great team,” he  said. “Six guys that wound up playing in the big tent, in the NBA. It was very talented. With the exception of Willie Glass, who was from Atlantic City, New Jersey, everyone was from Long Island or the city. That was really a New York team.

“People followed them through high school, and they rooted for them. When you walked into that Garden, forget about it. It was electric.”

Mullin, of course, was the favorite son growing up in Brooklyn with a following that extended far beyond his sprawling Irish clan. He grew up a Knicks fan and felt a connection to Madison Square Garden because a neighborhood friend’s uncle was Knicks trainer Danny Whelan.

“It was just a magical moment in time,” said Mullin, a Hall of Fame player who coached St. John’s from 2015-19 and now has returned to the San Francisco Bay area to work as a commentator on Warriors telecasts. “I think of my family, my friends, teammates and coaches. Everyone kind of got to share in it. It was a celebration. The one steadying force was Coach Carnesecca and his staff — Brian Mahoney and Ron Rutledge.”

STAR-STUDDED LINEUP

St. John’s was coming off an injury-plagued 19-11 season but was ranked No. 3 in the preseason poll because of a roster that included four future NBA first-round picks — Mullin, Wennington, Mark Jackson and Walter Berry — plus two other players, Shelton Jones and Ron Rowan, who later made NBA rosters.

As Jackson recalls, “I dreamt of being a pro, but my first day at St. John’s, I was like, ‘Holy crap, I’ve got a lot of work to do.’ Because the talent was that great. You watch Chris Mullin shoot jumpers as if they were layups, not just one day but every day, all day. You watch Walter Berry basically sitting on the sideline, never stretching, with his hoodie on, and at game time, it’s incredible talent that can score on anybody no matter what defense you put in front of him. Bill Wennington was a great big man.

“But clearly, our leader was Chris. Working every day with Chris made me a better player and put me in position to be a pro and really changed my working habits from a gym rat to a gym technician.”

Jackson went on to a 17-year NBA career and earned Rookie of the Year honors three years later with the Knicks, but he came off the bench on that St. John’s team behind senior guard Mike Moses. That was just one example of what Wennington described as the “chemistry” that characterized that team.

“On a lot of teams, you have cliques where two or three guys would be good friends and get along, but that team really was family,” said Wennington, who went on to win three NBA titles in a supporting role with the Michael Jordan-led Bulls, who now employ him as a radio commentator. “I think that starts with Coach, who got us all to believe in each other and understand that we were in this together.”

While Mullin, Wennington and Jackson spent four years at St. John’s, Carnesecca brought in Berry, who had played two years in junior college in San Jacinto, Texas, after a high school career at Benjamin Franklin in  Harlem. Integrating Berry took time. St. John’s escaped with one-point wins over St. Bonaventure and Fordham in the second and third games of the season and lost a road game against Niagara in mid-December before talent took over and momentum built. St. John's captured the Holiday Festival at the Garden, beating No. 14 North Carolina State in the title game.

“We knew we had the talent,” Mullin said. “It was implementing Walter more than anything else, adding a big-time scorer and an interior player. The game was way different back then. No three-point line, no shot clock. It was truly inside-out . . . Walter was dynamic. To this day, people ask me about him more than anybody. He was the piece that put us over the hump . . . His nickname was “The Truth,” and that’s what he was. Before [Celtics great] Paul Pierce, by the way.”

Berry’s addition meant fewer shots for other players, including Mullin. But as Wennington said, “Wasn’t that a wonderful problem to have? You have to integrate a player that’s better than most every guy that’s on the floor with you. It’s a sacrifice when you have a guy that’s going to come in and demand the ball as much as Walter and be the pivotal player that he is. But is your goal to score or to win? The goal on that team was to win, and we understood that. Walter fit in.”

NO RIVAL LIKE GEORGETOWN

When Big East Conference play began, St. John’s ran off six straight wins and then traveled to meet No. 1 Georgetown. St. John’s led by 18 points in the second half, but the Hoyas cut it to one with five seconds left. Carnesecca told Mullin to hold the ball and then throw it in just before the five-second clock expired, and St. John's ended the defending national champions’ 29-game winning streak.

“Chris held on to it, and the clock ran out,” Carnesecca said. “That’s a hell of a play. It’s like a CYO play.”

That victory elevated St. John’s to No. 1 in the country, a position it would hold for the next month. “Every game against Georgetown felt like it was No. 1 versus No. 2 no matter where we stood,” Mullin said. “That was the nice thing about the Big East Conference. Those built-in rivalries were NCAA Tournament-type games.”

Jackson said St. John’s had tremendous respect for Georgetown, but toward the end of that game, he had a signature moment.

“I got a breakaway dunk and started acting a fool and jumping up and down,” Jackson recalled. “A couple years later, I’m drafted to the Knicks and the first thing Pat Ewing says to me is, ‘I remember you acting a fool after you beat us at Georgetown with that one weak dunk.’ ”

St. John’s reeled off nine more wins after beating the Hoyas, the last of which was an 88-83 victory at No. 7 Syracuse. Near the end of that game, the usually efficient Mullin indulged a moment of flair when he stole the ball, broke for the other end and pounded a hard dribble that sent the basketball high in the air, where he caught it and dunked.

After that game, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim brought his team back onto the court in an empty Carrier Dome to practice. Clearly, Mullin’s dunk humiliated the Orangemen.

“No one would ever believe that unless you were there,” Mullin said, laughing, when reminded of the moment. “I couldn’t dunk like Willie Glass or Walter Berry, but we always messed around, and that was one of the dunks I messed with. In the back of my mind, I thought, ‘If I ever did this in a game, that would be pretty cocky.’ I actually had three dunks that game, probably my career high in one game.”

The next game was No. 1 St. John’s versus No. 2 Georgetown at Madison Square Garden. By that time, Carnesecca’s ugly sweater — a brown pullover with a broad red- and blue-striped chevron on the front — had become a talisman. But Georgetown coach John Thompson showed up wearing a replica before a pregame handshake with Louie.

“You had to bring that up?” Carnesecca said to Newsday. “He upstaged me. He caught me off guard, and then he beats me. That’s worse. But it was great for basketball. That showed what the Big East was.”

Recalling that game and the excitement it generated in New York, Mullin said, “Over the years, my mom and dad had I don’t know how many tickets they were getting for the games. It was like sitting at a wedding. This person can’t sit near this person because they’re not getting along at this point in time. So we’d space them out around the Garden so there would be no family drama. Mark Jackson’s family was there . . . It was a happening. Everyone was enjoying it.”

But the air went out of the balloon as Georgetown scored a dominant 85-69 victory to regain the No. 1 ranking.

St. John’s won its next game over Providence to finish 15-1 and win the Big East regular-season title. In the conference tournament at the Garden, St. John's ran over Providence and then beat Villanova for the third time in as many meetings that season, only to lose to the Hoyas, 92-80, in the title game.

REACHING NATIONAL SEMIFINALS

St. John’s still received the No. 1 seed in the West Regional of the NCAA Tournament, where it ran through Southern University and Arkansas in Salt Lake City and then Kentucky and North Carolina State in Denver to reach the Final Four.

For Carnesecca, it was a dream come true. Unfortunately, St. John’s was matched against Georgetown in the semifinals in Lexington and lost to the Hoyas for the third straight time to end a 31-4 season.

“We beat North Carolina State, and we knew we were going to the Final Four,” Carnesecca said. “That was about the biggest moment. We only lost four games. If it wasn’t for Georgetown, we would have been very good. We played them four times. We beat them the first time and they beat us the last three. You’ve got to shut up and give them the credit they deserve. Ewing was a factor. Not only on offense, but on defense, he blocked everything but the Lincoln Tunnel.”

Reaching the Final Four was satisfying for Wennington, who couldn’t help but think back to that first freshman night with Mullin and the conversation they shared.

“When we finally went to the Final Four, it was one of those moments where you said, ‘Hey, we thought about this 3 1/2  years ago, and it could become reality,’” Wennington said. “Any time you can achieve a goal you work that hard at, it’s very rewarding. To win in Denver was phenomenal, a lot of fun, but in retrospect, it wasn’t over for us. We knew there was more to it and we knew we had a battle coming. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out for us.”

Reflecting on the bitter end, Carnesecca added, “They played well, they did a good job, but everybody can’t be president, right? They gave it a good shot. I’m very proud of them, and they went on and did pretty good things.”

In the Final Four, St. John’s lost to Georgetown in the semifinals by a decisive 77-59 margin. That set up a title game between the No. 1 Hoyas and eighth-seeded Villanova, which scored a 66-64 upset to become the lowest-seeded team ever to win the NCAA title.

Recalling St. John’s loss to Georgetown in the semifinals, Mullin said, “They were relentless. They were a great, great team. We had incredible, intense, physical games with them to the point of beyond rivalry. There was a healthy dose of hatred there. It took about 20 years to wear off to where now, when I bump into those guys, we can really just smile and share our respect.

“Looking back, one of the greatest games in college basketball history came from that. And [Villanova star] Eddie Pinckney is one of my dear friends. We played high school ball together and in the summer. So something good came out of it.”

NEXT: The happy ending in 1985 was reserved for Villanova, but St. John’s players loved what came to be known as “The Perfect Game.”

St. John's 1984-85 roster

Pos. No. Name Ht./Wt. Year Hometown

F — John Hempel 6-7/225 Jr. Linden, N.J.

C 10 Terry Bross 6-8/215 Fr. Somerville, NJ

G 13 Mark Jackson 6-3/195 Soph. Brooklyn

G/F 20 Chris Mullin 6-6/205 Sr. Brooklyn

F 21 Walter Berry 6-8/215 Soph. Harlem

C 23 Bill Wennington 7-0/245 Sr. Wheatley Heights

G/F 30 Willie Glass 6-5/205 Soph. Atlantic City, N.J.

F 31 Shelton Jones 6-7/190 Fresh. Amityville

F 33 Ron Stewart 6-8/212 Sr. Brentwood

G 40 Steve Shurina 6-4/185 Fresh. Woodside

G 44 Bob Antonelli 6-3/175 Sr. Nanticoke, PA.

G 24 Mike Moses 5-11/160 Sr. New York, N.Y.

G/F 12 Ron Rowan 6-4/200 Jr. Beaver Falls, Pa.

F/C 52 Rob Cornegy 6-11/210 Fresh. Cambria Heights, N.Y.

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