SJU issues Storm warning for March

PHILADELPHIA -- In its final game of an incredible February, St. John's went from being simply a nice story to being a threat to win the Big East tournament, and a whole lot more.

The No. 25 Red Storm won their season-high sixth game in a row Saturday afternoon, defeating No. 14 Villanova 81-68 at the Wells Fargo Center in South Philly.

"It's just a team that's playing with great confidence," St. John's coach Steve Lavin said of his squad. "There's a cohesive dimension to this team that's allowed us to hit our stride at the right time of the year."

St. John's (19-9, 11-5 Big East) has beaten six ranked opponents this season; the only other team in the country that can boast that is No. 5 Texas. And on Saturday, for the first time this season, the Red Storm toppled a Top 25 team on the road.

In fact, the last time St. John's beat a ranked team away from home was Jan. 17, 2002, against No. 22 Boston College.

"Everybody was saying we can't play well away from Madison Square Garden, so I think we proved a point," St. John's guard Dwight Hardy said. "We beat six [ranked] teams, but we ain't done yet."

Hardy continued his stellar play. The 6-foot-2 senior, who came in averaging 25.2 points per game in his previous six, poured in a career-high 34 against Villanova, shooting 9-for-16 from the floor and 5-for-9 from beyond the 3-point arc. He has scored 30-plus four times this season and 20-plus on 12 occasions.

"We tried to do everything," Villanova coach Jay Wright said of defending Hardy. "We tried to trap him, we tried to deny him, we went a little zone. He's just awesome. He's playing great."

"When I don't hesitate on the court, I can be a very dangerous player," Hardy said. "I'm in a groove right now, and I just wanna keep it going."

The entire St. John's team came out on fire Saturday, as the Red Storm surged to an 18-4 lead just over four minutes into the game. Villanova made a couple of runs, cutting the deficit to five at halftime and to 65-64 with exactly four minutes remaining. But time and time again, St. John's made a big play when it needed one.

"It's the first thing I mentioned to the team, that what I was most proud of is exhibiting the ability to counterpunch," Lavin said. "Because you know on the road in the Big East, against a well-coached team like Villanova, they're eventually gonna make a run.

"What you hope is that you have enough when they make the run to withstand it and then make a run of your own to be able to salt a victory away. ... And that's something that wasn't there earlier in the season."

It wasn't there earlier this season, and it certainly wasn't there a season ago, before Lavin came on the scene. In almost half of St. John's losses last season -- seven out of 16, to be exact -- the Red Storm actually led at halftime.

That includes last year's game against Villanova, in which St. John's held a double-digit lead in the first half.

"I think this is just a prime example of hard work paying off," said reserve forward Sean Evans, a Philadelphia native who had eight points and four rebounds off the bench, with 26 family and friends in attendance. "This team's been through a lot. We lost a couple of close games in past years, and I think this year we're tired of losing, and we're tired of losing like that."

"What we've tried to do as a coaching staff is create the culture where work is part of the equation -- what we call hammer to rock," Lavin said. "So whether that's in the weight room, whether it's coming in for extra free throw shooting ... watching film one-on-one with an assistant coach, the scouting reports, the walkthroughs, the practices themselves, and then that extra work individually ... I think with hard work comes confidence, and the expectation to be successful."

The players also credit their new coach and the confidence he has instilled in them since he took over the program in April.

"We come to games to win the game. We never look at it like, we can win. We come in to win the game," Evans said. "It's just something about him. He got swag like that. He's always talkin' about swagger. ... His swag rubs off on us."

St. John's was not successful in its first three attempts to beat a ranked opponent on the road this season. In fact, the Red Storm didn't even sniff a victory, losing at Notre Dame by 15, at Louisville by 25 and at Georgetown by 25 as well.

But all three of those losses came in January. February has been a completely different story. Toss in the drubbing of Mike Krzyzewski's club on Jan. 30, and St. John's has won eight of nine, taking out four top 15 teams (Duke, UConn, Pitt and Villanova) along the way.

Wright said this both before and after his team's loss to St. John's, and it's hard to argue with: "They're playing great right now. Really as well as anyone in the country."

Don't forget, this is practically the same collection of players that finished 13th in the 16-team Big East a season ago. Now they own third place, with their final two regular-season games being against 12th-place Seton Hall and 15th-place South Florida next week.

Which means St. John's could very well be carrying an eight-game winning streak and a world of momentum into the postseason.

Just making the Big Dance for the first time since 2002 was St. John's stated goal in October. Not anymore.

"We're mindful of the things we're doing," Lavin said. "The winning is exponentially changing our goals and aspirations and what we can do in the postseason, both in the Big East tournament and potentially in the NCAA tournament. But we gotta stay on the old hammer to rock, inch by inch, day by day, brick by brick. As Coach [Gene] Keady always told me, just try to get a little bit better on a daily basis."

You couldn't have had a much better month than St. John's has. And after a February to remember, March could be even more special.

And who knows? This team might even play a game or two in April.