St. John's Red Storm head coach Rick Pitino directs his...

St. John's Red Storm head coach Rick Pitino directs his players in the second half of an NCAA Big East men’s basketball game against the Georgetown Hoyas at Madison Square Garden on Saturday. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

St. John’s has been fighting and clawing for almost three weeks to resurrect its chances to make the NCAA Tournament. And now it stands at the precipice of a critical moment and cannot leave anything to fate or chance.

St. John’s finished its regular season by shaking off 32 minutes of mediocre play as RJ Luis Jr. carried the Red Storm to an 86-78 Big East win over Georgetown on Saturday before 16,127 at the Garden.

They may not need another win to make the field of 68, but to be safe, they still have to get at least one more.

Maybe 20 schools were in the mix for the last eight at-large bids going into the weekend, and Championship Week — when bid-stealers can emerge — lies ahead. If St. John’s can reach the Big East Tournament semifinals, that ought to lock up its first NCAA Tournament trip since 2019.

St. John’s (19-12, 11-9) has won five straight games since it put its NCAA chances on the rocks with a home loss to Seton Hall. The Red Storm’s 11 conference wins are their most since the dozen by Dwight Hardy’s St. John’s team in 2010-11. No Big East team with 11 conference wins has missed the NCAA Tournament since the conference shed football before the 2013-14 season. But this is one of those situations in which no one wants to be first.

The Red Storm will be the No. 5 seed in the conference tournament and get a bye into Thursday’s 2:30 p.m. quarterfinal against fourth-seeded Seton Hall (20-11, 13-7). Beating the Pirates and making the semifinals should clinch the NCAA Tournament berth.

“To finish 19-12, I’m very proud of that,” Rick Pitino said. “We’ve put ourselves in the hunt to go to The Big Dance.”

Before looking ahead, however, let’s take a moment to look back. St. John’s dismissed Mike Anderson as coach on March 10, 2023, and the program has come a long way in the 366 days since. The first step was bringing in Hall of Fame coach Pitino, and now look where St. John’s is: The Red Storm are relevant locally and nationally on par with New York’s pro teams, their fan base is growing, they play games in all of the area’s biggest venues, their schedule is significantly upgraded and a new 50,000-square-foot practice facility is being built.

You’ve come a long way, baby? You bet.

“It was special to go to Iona . . . . to play for Coach and go to the Tournament,” said Daniss Jenkins, who followed Pitino from the Gaels. “But to do it here at a school like this, it would be all our dreams [and] I know for [Pitino] to be back in the Big East. Nobody thought we could do it in this year, but we came together to rally. I think it would be special if we can get there and I think we can do some damage if we can get there.”

Maybe so, but the Red Storm need to get there first.

St. John’s has a roster in which the game-changing contributions can come from virtually anywhere, and that sometimes is a characteristic of special teams. On Saturday, it was Luis who stepped to the fore. Jenkins finished with 23 points and seven assists and Chris Ledlum had 14 points, but Luis was the difference-maker in those final minutes after the Hoyas (9-22, 2-18) closed to within 61-60 on a drive by Jayden Epps (23 points) with 7:50 to play.

Pitino’s move to put the sophomore on Epps disrupted the Hoyas, and he then took the Red Storm on a 13-4 run to restore the margin to 10 at 74-64 on Ledlum’s three-point play with 3:39 left. Luis had four points, two steals and an assist on Joel Soriano’s dunk, and Epps vanished.

Luis brought the Garden crowd to its feet when, undeterred by missing a pair of free throws, he immediately got a steal he took in for a dunk.

Luis had 16 points (14 after halftime and 10 in the last 7:50), three steals and two assists. Epps had two free throws in the final 7:50.

“[It’s] just being locked in,” Luis said. “Coach P, in a timeout he asked me to guard him, so I had to step up and slow him down because he was scoring a lot. Me stopping him helps slow down the pace, not only for him but also his teammates. I think that was important in getting this win.”

“They’re playing the best basketball coming down the stretch,” Hoyas coach Ed Cooley said of the Red Storm. “Coach Pitino has done a great job rallying his guys. We have several [NCAA] Tournament teams in the Big East and, clearly, they are definitely one of them.”

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