St. John's seniors end careers in tears

DENVER -- When the final horn sounded at the Pepsi Center on Thursday night, and St. John's and Gonzaga had finished the obligatory handshakes and headed to their respective locker rooms, two St. John's players remained, the last two to leave the floor.

Dwight Hardy, who had just scored 26 points in his final college game, stood by the scorer's table, head buried in his chest. And D.J. Kennedy, a fellow senior who had to sit on the sideline and watch his final college game because of an injured knee, had his left arm wrapped around his despondent teammate.

That was the final play of the Red Storm's remarkable 2010-2011 season, which came to a bitter end with an 86-71 loss in their NCAA tournament opener.

"Very silent. A lot of tears shed," said a red-eyed Hardy at the postgame news conference, when asked to describe what the locker room was like immediately after the game. "We know after this loss we just took that we won't get another chance, the seniors won't get another chance to play in this atmosphere again."

St. John's accomplished the one goal it set at the beginning of this season -- making the NCAA tournament, for the first time in nine years. But after all of its success over the past few months -- including beating the likes of Duke, UConn and Pittsburgh -- the No. 6-seeded Red Storm were hoping to go farther in the Big Dance than an upset defeat at the hands of the No. 11-seeded Zags.

"Gonzaga played a great basketball game," said St. John's forward Justin Burrell. "They imposed their will in every single way possible. They beat us in every single aspect of this basketball game. They rebounded the ball, made shots, shot the 3, got in the paint -- they beat us in every way you can possibly be beat."

After St. John's jumped out to an 8-2 lead, Gonzaga dominated the rest of the first half, taking a 43-32 lead at intermission. And it was more of the same in the second half, as the Johnnies never got closer than eight, in the opening minute after the break.

Gonzaga shot the ball extremely well -- 28-for-52 from the field (53.8 percent), and 9-for-15 from 3-point range. But the most telling stat was the rebounding margin -- the Zags slaughtered the Red Storm on the glass, 43-20.

"Their size was able to dominate at the rim and in the lane at both ends of the floor," said St. John's coach Steve Lavin. "That was a concern coming in. It played itself out.

"It's a really unusual front line in terms of combining size, length, strength with excellent skill and basketball acumen."

"We played great," said Gonzaga coach Mark Few. "St. John's is a tough, hard-nosed team. They've been rebounding the ball very well, especially on the offensive end. We did a great job there. We did a great job attacking their press, attacking their zone, really playing at our pace, which is what we had talked about doing all week."

Gonzaga's 7-foot center, Robert Sacre, finished with nine points and nine rebounds, while 6-foot-7 forward Elias Harris had 15 and eight. But guard Marquise Carter was the Zags' biggest star on the night -- averaging just 5.9 points coming in, he scored 24, to go along with six rebounds and six assists.

It didn't help that St. John's was without its leading rebounder on the season, Kennedy. But truth be told, the 6-foot-5 Kennedy would not have been enough to alter the rebounding totals dramatically.

"I think in the second half we had a better level of play," Burrell said. "The first half, they really just pursued the basketball at a higher level than us."

In a few months, maybe even in a few weeks, these St. John's players will be able to look back and feel a tremendous sense of pride, for what was indeed a season of impressive accomplishments:

Twenty-one wins. A tie for third in the Big East, in perhaps the conference's finest season ever. A national ranking for the first time since 2000. And wins over a bunch of the very best college basketball programs in America.

But on Thursday night, sitting around in a hushed locker room in the Pepsi Center, speaking with the media, they were not able to do that -- and who could blame them? Especially the nine seniors.

"I hope so, I hope so. But I'm really not sure if I will," Burrell said. "I know we did a lot of great things. ... So I hope one day I can look back at it and see that. But right now I just don't see that. I'm really disappointed, I'm hurt -- it's hard to explain the feelings I have."

On Thursday night, we saw heartbreak in that St. John's locker room.

Because not only had these guys never played in an NCAA tournament game, there's something else they'd never done.

Lost one.