SJU runs into one declining moment

NEW YORK -- In an instant, everything changed.

It's the moment you dread most in sports -- whether you're a player, a coach, a journalist or a fan. A player is on the ground, and he cannot get up.

It happened at Madison Square Garden on Thursday afternoon, less than six minutes into a Big East quarterfinal. St. John's forward D.J. Kennedy drove to the basket, got his right leg twisted in a tangle of bodies in the lane and crumpled to the ground.

Kennedy knew it right away. When teammates came over to help him, he shooed them away, and began waving for trainer Ron Linfonte instead. Coach Steve Lavin joined Linfonte by Kennedy's side.

"[D.J.] just said, 'It's bad,'" Lavin said after the game. "I said, 'How bad?' He said, 'It's bad.'"

(A postgame X-ray and MRI confirmed the worst -- Kennedy tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. His season, and his college career, are over.)

As you watched Kennedy being helped off the floor a couple minutes after the injury occurred, limping gingerly to the locker room with help from teammates Kevin Clark and Jamal White, you couldn't help but wonder if St. John's chances in this tournament -- and the next one -- had crumpled, too.

Except, this senior-laden squad took the punch -- and turned the other cheek. The veterans handled this, just like they handled a coaching change before their senior season, and a January stretch of five losses in six games. The Red Storm responded valiantly in the face of change and adversity, outscoring Syracuse 32-20 from that point to take a 37-32 lead into halftime.

"Over the course of the game, you could sense that D.J.'s teammates wanted to step up," Lavin said after a 79-73 loss. "They understood the sense of urgency to step up and perform and counterpunch. And that's been a trait or characteristic that's been there all along this season."

St. John's went toe-to-toe with a full-strength Syracuse squad in the second half as well. The usual suspects, Dwight Hardy and Justin Brownlee, scored 37 points between them -- but other players stepped up, too. Sean Evans posted a double-double (11 points, 12 rebounds). Paris Horne contributed a pair of second-half triples -- one from beyond the arc, and one the old-fashioned way. Even Malik Stith chipped in five points in just three minutes on the floor.

A seesaw battle that featured 10 lead changes and 11 ties was all knotted up at 68 with 2:25 to go.

"It shows the experience, and it shows the depth that we have with our team," Evans said. "When a player like D.J. goes down, most teams fall and crumble and it can be the end of the game. But that showed that we can fight and we can pull out games. We didn't get it today, but I feel like, the way we played today, we could beat a lot of teams."

Yes, St. John's ran out of fuel in that final 145 seconds -- worn down by the imposing Syracuse front line of 6-foot-7 Kris Joseph, 6-foot-9 Rick Jackson and the suddenly potent 7-foot freshman, Fab Melo.

But that doesn't make St. John's effort any less commendable.

"It speaks volumes about our players' character and resiliency and their will to win," Lavin said. "And that will serve us well next week in the NCAA tournament."

Nine seniors are about to make a lifelong dream come true, participating in the Big Dance, but only eight will be able to play. Evans, who has been roommates with Kennedy since their freshman year, was particularly emotional after the game.

"We're together every day, all day," Evans said. "You see me, you see him. You see him, you see me. It's more than basketball with me and him. When I say it's my brother, that's really my brother -- like I'd do anything for him, and he'd do the same for me.

"We just sit in our house sometimes and just talk about the [NCAA] tournament so much. And to see that we might go into the tournament without him, it hurts me a lot."

Without Kennedy, St. John's is missing its leading rebounder (5.7 rpg) and third-leading scorer (10.7 ppg). The 6-foot-5 swingman is the most versatile player on the team -- the "glue guy," as Lavin has referred to him on more than one occasion.

"D.J. does so much, no one guy is gonna take up his slack," guard Malik Boothe said. "I think it's gonna have to come from a number of guys."

Evans, a player who averaged 10.3 points and 7.1 rebounds two years ago, but was buried so far down Lavin's bench earlier this season that he got two DNPs in December, has experienced a late-season resurgence.

Horne -- who averaged 14.6 points two seasons ago but lost his starting job to freshman Dwayne Polee in November (but eventually won it back) -- had 11 points, 3 assists and 3 boards against Syracuse.

Lavin will need a little more from those two. And from everyone else.

"Our approach this entire year has been, the strength is in the pack," Lavin said. "It's been different players who have stepped up at different times -- whether it's changing our starting lineups, or contributions coming from someone down the stretch like Sean Evans.

"We talk about 'expect the unexpected,' within a game and within a season. And how we respond and use ingenuity and resourcefulness and all the things that it takes to be a good basketball team. So drawing on those attributes, drawing on that mindset that we've had all year is what we'll have to do again."

"If [D.J.] doesn't get to play with us, it's going to be devastating," Hardy said. "But we've got to play a basketball game at the end of the day and we're going to play as hard as we can for him."

St. John's is still going to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002, a great achievement. And the Red Storm still might win a game, make the Sweet 16, or go even farther.

Or they might fall just short in the first round, in the same manner they did Thursday in the Big East quarterfinals at the Garden. A key play short. Or a key player short.

In an instant, everything changed.