St. John's throwin' Garden parties again

NEW YORK -- It's official: When it comes to college basketball, St. John's owns Madison Square Garden again.

The Red Storm put the exclamation point on this feat with yet another statement win under first-year coach Steve Lavin -- an 89-72 blowout victory over No. 9 UConn on Thursday night, to the delight of many in the crowd of 13,652 fans.

For St. John's and its nine seniors, it's their fourth win of the season over a team ranked among the top 15 in the nation at the time. And all four victories have come at MSG, where St. John's is now 6-1 overall. It's the most wins St. John's has had against ranked opponents since 1999-2000.

"There are those few moments -- they don't happen very often -- where you're able to, even though you're a coach, you're able to step back and take a deep breath and just kind of enjoy as a fan what's transpiring," Lavin said. "And with this group it's even more unique because they're seniors, they've been through so much, and so you're rooting for them to do well. And so it makes the wins that much sweeter, because they're such a good group."

This process started with a 61-58 squeaker over then-No. 13 Georgetown on Jan. 3. It continued with a 72-54 rout of then-No. 11 Notre Dame two weeks later. It reached a crescendo with a 93-78 manhandling of then-No. 3 Duke on Jan. 30. And the finishing touches came Thursday night against Jim Calhoun's Huskies, who hadn't lost to St. John's in the regular season since 2002.

"They just outplayed us for 40 minutes and outworked us, and we didn't give 'em the type of resistance that we have all year," Calhoun said. "We never really got into the game the way we needed to get into the game to beat a very good St. John's team. They're tough, they're physical, they're experienced and I thought they played terrific.

"On this given night, St. John's handled us in every single way they possibly could."

The first half was a back-and-forth affair, with both teams making multiple runs. A running 3-pointer from just inside the half-court line by Malik Boothe banked home at the halftime buzzer, giving St. John's a 35-31 lead.

Calhoun, who thought Boothe had traveled and demonstrably shared his opinion with the referees afterward, was T'd up on his way to the locker room, meaning St. John's opened the second half with two free throws and the ball. The Red Storm never relinquished the momentum from there. They scored the first eight points after intermission and led by as many as 25 with just more than seven minutes remaining.

St. John's shot an astounding 17-for-24 (70.8 percent) from the field in the second 20 minutes. Shooting guard Dwight Hardy, who badly outplayed fellow Bronx native and national player of the year candidate Kemba Walker (15 points, 4-for-16 shooting), had a career-high 33 points -- including 12 points in a span of 2 minutes, 8 seconds in the second half. D.J. Kennedy also had a monster game for St. John's with 20 points, 11 rebounds and 5 assists.

"I was just in a zone," Hardy said. "And when I'm in those zones, I just kinda black out. I don't know how to describe it. I just feel like the basket gets bigger and bigger."

Lavin said he wasn't shocked by the victory, even though the game was essentially over midway through the second half.

"I think the biggest surprise was handling West Virginia on the road to start conference play," Lavin said. "And then the next-biggest surprise was Duke. And then tonight. But I'd say they're less surprising, because our players have demonstrated a propensity or ability to do that when we are clicking."

Truth be told, this team hasn't clicked like this in many years -- particularly at home. St. John's games at the Garden have been downright depressing in recent seasons. The Red Storm haven't drawn big crowds -- in fact, many visiting teams have had more fans in the seats.

But the electricity is definitely back. After all, seven teams have come into the Garden to play St. John's this season, and six have gone home unhappy -- including four bona fide Final Four contenders. During the Red Storm's surge in the second half Thursday night, you could not imagine a much better home-court advantage.

Perhaps it has something to do with Lavin and the way he has embraced Madison Square Garden since he came aboard back in April. Lavin has said the Garden was one of the major factors in his taking the St. John's job in the first place. He also asked right off the bat whether his team could use the Knicks' locker room -- dressed up in St. John's swag, of course -- for its home games here. Previously, St. John's had used an auxiliary locker room.

At any rate, the players feel the difference.

"Yeah, it definitely does feel like more of a home-court advantage," Boothe said.

Said Kennedy: "The fans and the energy in the building have helped us out a lot."

St. John's now stands 14-9 overall and 6-5 in Big East play, with seven regular-season games remaining. With the high-profile wins now on their résumé, if the Red Storm just take care of business against the three teams they likely will be favored against the rest of the way (DePaul, Seton Hall and South Florida), they will finish .500 in the conference and almost assuredly make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002.

But the players aren't looking quite that far ahead.

"It's another step toward reaching our goal, and we can't let down from here," Hardy said. "We still got tough teams ahead, and we also want to get those victories so we can improve our résumé even more."

But after Thursday night, this St. John's team has already accomplished something extraordinary. It's taken back the Garden.

Next stop? The Big Dance.