Fordham's joy is St. John's sorrow

NEW YORK -- Steve Lavin looked spent. Or stunned.

Or maybe it was a little of both.

He had watched his St. John's team extend its 12-point halftime lead to 21 -- only to cough up the entire thing, and then some. And now Fordham -- a team that had won five games the past two seasons combined -- had the ball, up 82-81, with 44 ticks left on the clock.

The Rams had no timeouts left, so they were just going to hold the ball for as long as possible before taking a shot. Lavin crouched low to the ground in front of the St. John's bench and never even opened his mouth. He just stayed in that crouch and watched as Fordham's Brenton Butler drilled a perimeter jumper with 14 seconds left to extend the Rams' lead to three.

Lavin called a timeout with 9.2 seconds remaining and drew up what he hoped would be a game-tying play. But Dwight Hardy missed two desperation 3s, and suddenly hundreds of Fordham fans were rushing the court -- exulting in a truly jaw-dropping win, in a truly great college basketball game.

"I have to credit Fordham for a resilient effort," Lavin said. "From an aggression standpoint, I thought Fordham in the second half really took it to us."

It was the second straight excruciating loss for the Red Storm, who were stunned at home by St. Bonaventure on Tuesday, 67-66. In that game, St. John's blew a 10-point lead with just over 13 minutes to play.

This collapse was even more devastating, because of the margin St. John's squandered and because it came against a team that finished 2-26 last season.

Even worse, that team is a crosstown rival -- a crosstown rival that St. John's has dominated in the history of their series, winning 61 of the 81 previous meetings.

St. John's had huge trouble closing games last season, blowing halftime leads in seven of its 16 losses. And Lavin clearly has not been able to solve that problem in his first season, as evidenced by the team's two games this week. The Red Storm received huge efforts from Hardy -- 24 points against the Bonnies, followed by 30 against the Rams -- but that wasn't enough in either case.

"I think the most disappointing thing is, we show glimpses -- as we did up in Alaska -- of really playing good basketball," Lavin said. "We're gonna watch the film, and that'll make it even more heartbreaking, because there were other stretches where we broke down."

For Fordham, the importance of this victory to the basketball program, the university and new coach Tom Pecora cannot be underestimated.

"What can I say? You were there, you saw it -- the resiliency and the toughness of this bunch of guys," Pecora said. "That was a great college basketball atmosphere, and that's what Fordham University deserved. This is my vision of this program, and that's why I'm here.

"This is the way it can be."

The atmosphere was indeed electric at Rose Hill Gym, even before the opening tip. Rose Hill is one of the smallest buildings still in use in Division I basketball, but it was packed to the gills with 3,200 people Saturday night -- a sellout. Scalpers were even hocking tickets outside prior to the game, a highly unusual sight.

And when Fordham ripped off not one, but two 16-0 runs in the second half, eventually usurping the lead, the place rumbled like it was about to launch from Cape Canaveral.

"You can see how tough a place this can be to play," Pecora said. "The place was rocking. It was fun."

For the Fordham players, this was undoubtedly a career highlight after enduring 3-25 and 2-26 finishes the past two seasons. Butler, a fifth-year senior, played the entire second half with four fouls yet scored a team-high 22 points.

"We just had to stay in each other's ear and stay positive," Butler said. "Never keeping our head down or putting our head down, moving on to the next play."

It also helped that Fordham shot 12-for-23 from behind the 3-point arc. St. John's was just 4-for-20 from long range.

Butler also credited his new coach, who already has the Rams over .500 at 5-4.

"Since Day 1, when he got here, you could just tell -- he knew he was coming in here to win, not to just win four games and make it a wrap and say, 'OK, well we did better than the years previous,'" Butler said. "He was very adamant about the fact that as long as we worked hard and bought in, we could win way more than four games and we could beat really good teams.

"We knew that it was gonna be different and we knew that we were gonna have to work harder than we've ever worked before, and we have. And we're reaping the benefits of that."

As sweet as the win tasted for the Fordham players, it could not have tasted sweeter to anyone than Pecora, a longtime local coaching staple who took the Fordham job this past spring after spending nine years as the head man at Hofstra. Pecora's name was mentioned prominently for the St. John's opening, but St. John's never contacted him, ultimately going with Lavin.

Pecora even poked fun at that fact after the game, when telling reporters what he told his team before the game.

"Look, it's St. John's. They didn't recruit any of us," Pecora said he told his team. "They didn't recruit me as a player or a coach."

Pecora looked very happy to be a Fordham man late Saturday.

"We have a quote every day in practice, and I think yesterday it was, 'We don't just belong, we can win,'" he said. "I didn't want [my players] to think, 'Oh, we just gotta play well, and it'll be OK.' .... It's not OK to lose to St. John's.

"I didn't want them to think that. It's not OK. We can win this game. And we were lucky enough to do that."

Kieran Darcy is a staff writer for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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