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St. John's elated, relieved to make NCAA Tournament

The St. John's men's basketball team celebrates after

The St. John's men's basketball team celebrates after being selected to play in the NCAA Tournament on Sunday. Credit: Vincent Dusovic

Elation was measured in decibels on the St. John’s campus Sunday evening.

Gathered in a reception hall across from Carnesecca Arena, the men’s basketball team watched the NCAA Tournament selection show. They waited until the final branches of the bracket were revealed, glimpsed their name and let out a holler of celebration and relief that nearly shook the place.

“That was authentic emotion,” coach Chris Mullin said.

The Red Storm (21-12) just squeaked into The Big Dance and will be making their 30th NCAA appearance. They will meet Arizona State (22-10) on Wednesday in Dayton, Ohio, in the First Four to decide the No. 11 seed in the West Regional. The winner will meet No. 6 Buffalo on Friday in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Selection committee chairman Bernard Muir said the Red Storm — who stumbled to five losses in their last seven games — received the final at-large bid in the draw.

“As it was winding down, I was just thinking, ‘Are we in? Are we in?’  ” Shamorie Ponds said of seeing “St. John’s’’ on the 58th of 64 lines in the bracket. “It definitely felt good to see the name pop up on the screen.”

“It was a cliffhanger,” Marvin Clark II said. “We had to wait to the last region and the very end. In the end, though, it paid off.”

This is St. John’s first NCAA Tournament berth since 2015 and first since favorite son Mullin returned to become coach after that season. The Hall of Famer has seen most everything in basketball, from a Final Four in 1985 to winning gold with the Dream Team in 1992. Watching a selection show with his team was something new.

“I felt a little stress as the picks were going away. I saw in the room there was a little tension,” Mullin said. “That was a new experience. At 55, that’s pretty cool to go through something you haven’t been through. The room was getting tense.”

After St. John’s was eliminated from the Big East Tournament by Marquette in Thursday’s quarterfinal, an assortment of conference tournament games could have reduced the number of at-large bids for power conferences. Enough went their way, including Buffalo winning the MAC, Utah State winning the WAC, and Memphis and Wichita State losing AAC quarterfinals.

Said Mustapha Heron, “We watched them all.”

The show itself was a roller coaster for the players. When the other First Four game was revealed early and included a Belmont team few thought would make it, things looked bleak. They got bleaker when Big East champion Villanova got a No. 6 seed, seeming to indicate little respect for the conference. But St. John’s made it over the fence — barely.

“That was the appropriate way to handle things. We deserved it with the way we finished the season,” Clark said. “I’ll just say it’s an ecstatic feeling. I felt we were going to get in, whether a play-in game or a very low seed against someone very good. I kept the faith.”

St. John’s knows a little bit about Arizona State and coach Bobby Hurley. The Sun Devils beat the Red Storm, 82-70, last season in Los Angeles, and Ponds said, “That’s all the confidence I need. That’s all the revenge I need.”

This season, St. John’s experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. It won four games against the Big East’s other three NCAA entries — Villanova, Marquette and Seton Hall — but was 2-5 against the bottom three teams.

“We have the talent to make a lot of noise in the tournament,” Clark said. “Somebody gave us the nod and put us in the tournament. We have to take full advantage of it.”


St. John’s NCAA Tournament history:

Tournament berths (including 2019): 30

Last appearance: 2015, lost to San Diego State, 76-64, second round

Last tournament win: 2000, beat Northern Arizona, 61-56, first round

Win-loss: 27-31

Final Fours: 2 (1952, 1985)

Championships: 0

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