For much of this season, St. John's has been the Team That Couldn't. Oh, the Red Storm could take a double-digit lead against most anybody in the Big East. But they couldn't finish, couldn't take it to the bank.
But St. John's is approaching the Big East Tournament as a new season, a chance to be the team they believe they should be. Facing a disjointed Connecticut team looking to patch together its own season-saving run, St. John's not only built a 17-point first-half lead, but it responded to a Huskies comeback with a finishing punch to score a 73-51 first-round win Tuesday afternoon at Madison Square Garden.
"We feel like we're one of the sleepers in the tournament," Red Storm forward D.J. Kennedy said. "Our record doesn't show it, but we really are. We definitely feel like we could make a lot of noise in this tournament."
The victory snapped a nine-game losing streak against UConn (17-15) dating to 2002 for St. John's (17-14), which meets Marquette (20-10) in a second-round game at 2:30 p.m. today. It's the same scenario as last season when the Red Storm upset Georgetown in the first round and then was bounced in humiliating fashion by the Golden Eagles, 74-45.
The new, tougher version of the Red Storm sounds determined not to relive that nightmare. "We don't want to get too happy about it," Kennedy said of the UConn win. "We didn't accomplish anything yet. We know what happened last year, so we're trying to stay focused."
With the pressure mounting on coach Norm Roberts, whose job might be in jeopardy after six seasons without a postseason bid, the Storm began like a team on a mission. A 13-2 run that ended with a dunk and a layup by Sean Evans (19 points, 10 rebounds) off two beautiful feeds from point guard Malik Boothe gave St. John's a 35-18 lead shortly before halftime.
UConn, which came in on a three-game losing streak, was nine down with just over eight minutes to play. But St. John's pushed the lead to 61-42 with a 10-0 run that was full of the kind of second-effort plays that demonstrated St. John's resolve.
"They're playing not only hard, but they're playing with their hearts," Roberts said.
The key sequence came when Kennedy fought for an offensive rebound to extend a possession that ended with a basket by Justin Brownlee (13 points, four blocks) on a feed from Kennedy. After a UConn miss, Kennedy drove and gave Evans a clever underhand dish for an easy layup. Moments later, Paris Horne (13 points) pounced on a loose ball at midcourt and called timeout before the Huskies could tie him up.
"They came out in the second half and kind of punched us," Roberts said of UConn. "And then we fought back."
Huskies guards Kemba Walker and Jerome Dyson tore up St. John's earlier this season, but on this day, Walker shot 4-for-17 and had a team-high 12 points, and Dyson was forced into nine turnovers. It was like St. John's had turned a new leaf.
"It's a lot about mental toughness," Evans said. "We can play in the first half with any team in the country. We don't usually keep that momentum in the second half. It was big for us to keep fighting, keep punching and come out with the win."