For the past few years, St. John's envisioned endings like this, what with a clutch New York kid pulling out a big win in the final seconds at the Garden. That is why it tried so hard to recruit Lance Stephenson, the star from Lincoln High in Brooklyn. And because he spurned the Red Storm, the least it could do was ruin his return.
"It was kind of emotional, being that we wanted him to come here and he decided to go elsewhere," said Dwight Hardy, a junior from the Bronx, the New York kid who actually did win the game, a grinding 52-50 thriller over Cincinnati and you-know-who.
Hardy led St. John's with 19 points, most notably four free throws in the final 8.5 seconds - with a stolen inbounds pass in between - to turn a two-point deficit into the Red Storm's first Big East win of the season. He knows how good Stephenson is, having played against the Cincinnati freshman in high school and on the playgrounds.
"Mainly the Garden is where he usually plays. He played four years of high school, so he is used to this stage," Hardy said, referring to Stephenson leading Lincoln to four consecutive PSAL titles. "We just wanted to spoil his homecoming, basically. We needed a win desperately. They needed one but we needed it more. We just tried to get in his head."
Stephenson already had gotten on the Storm's nerves this week during a conference call with reporters. He explained why he had included St. John's on his list of final three schools, then reneged when the other two (Kansas and Maryland) backed out.
"I felt Cincinnati was more of a family and I felt Mick [Cronin] could help me be a better player, and I felt like he was a better coach," Stephenson had said. It was meant as a compliment to the Bearcats' coach but it came as a slap at Norm Roberts, coach of the Red Storm (11-5, 1-3). The latter graciously said he was not offended, but the student body at the Garden last night had one word for Stephenson: "Boooooo."
For one night, Red Storm followers had the last laugh. They loved it that Stephenson had only seven points, shooting 3-for-9. They delighted when the freshman guard tried an inbounds pass from under his own basket with 8.5 seconds left and the score tied. Hardy stole it, got fouled and made the clinching free throws.
"I was back in my hometown, I expected to play the best game of my college career," Stephenson said. "This wasn't the night for me. I was too excited."
Not nearly as excited as the Storm, which desperately needs big wins to stay afloat in the Big East and stay relevant in New York. More finishes like this one, and they might land the next Stephenson.
"Lance is going to be a terrific player," Roberts said. "He's going to be an NBA player. He's a good kid. We wish him all the best. I just don't want him to beat us. He's a New York kid, I'm a New York guy. I love all NY kids, even if they don't play for me."