The match-up invoked clashes of a different era.
It was St. John’s and Georgetown fighting for a championship.
But instead of Lou Carnesecca and John Thompson roaming the sidelines, it was Mike Jarvis and Craig Esherick.
A bruising monster named Patrick Ewing didn’t lead the Hoyas; a bruising monster named Mike Sweetney led them.
And the Red Storm didn’t turn to a mop-topped Chris Mullin; it was a quick and wiry Marcus Hatten.
There was another difference in this age-old rivalry – St. John’s came away with the victory.
Five times they had met in the Big East Tournament and once in the NCAAs, but never had the Red Storm been able to come out on the winning end.
The Johnnies defeated Georgetown for the first time in postseason play to capture the National Invitational Tournament Championship, 70-67, at Madison Square Garden last Thursday.
The title was St. John’s record sixth NIT crown and the first since 1989.
“It feels like everything I thought it would be,” said Hatten, who was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player. “This feeling is one that I will remember for the rest of my life.”
That feeling was made possible after a frenzy of plays down the stretch secured the victory for the Red Storm.
Clinging to a 68-67 lead with 24 seconds remaining, Hatten’s forced shot over three defenders was short, and Georgetown had a chance to win the game on a last-second shot.
After the Hoyas called time-out with ten seconds to play, Georgetown looked to get the ball inside to Sweetney.
“You can’t stop him totally but what you can do is try to make it a little more difficult and make other people beat you,” Jarvis said.
After failing to get Sweetney the ball, Gerald Riley took a quick three-pointer with 8.4 seconds on the clock, and his shot bounced off the back rim.
The ball was batted around and SJU forward Grady Reynolds corralled his 14th and final rebound of the night with 4.1 seconds remaining.
“I though Kyle [Cuffe] had it for a minute and then it tipped right into my hands,” Reynolds said. “I grabbed it and I knew it was over.”
Elijah Ingram was fouled, and the freshman point guard stepped to the free-throw line with a chance to extend the lead to three.
“I wasn’t worried about the time or the situation,” said Ingram, who was named to the All-Tournament Team. “I just had it set in my mind to shoot the free throws like it was the beginning of the game.”
Both shots were good.
The Hoyas pushed the ball up the court and Tony Bethel got off a running three-pointer that hit backboard and rim but didn’t go down.
Pandemonium swept the Garden as fans rushed the court and celebrated SJU’s ninth win in the last 10 games.
“Everybody has to play well and do something to contribute,” Jarvis said. “You take the couple of baskets that Abe Keita made – you don’t win if you don’t make those. You take the free throws that Elijah made at the end. Grady Reynolds was incredible again.”
Players reveled in the fact that one month earlier, they were facing a losing season where postseason play wouldn’t even be possible.
Now they were champions.
“It’s a great way to go out,” senior co-captain Anthony Glover said. “We’ve been facing ups and downs and to have a great comeback like this, it’s special.
“You’re always going to have that memory.”
The ups and downs were evident in this game as well, as the Johnnies trailed 38-34 at halftime.
Shooting 29 percent kept St. John’s from what could have been a sizable lead, because they had taken 15 more shots than the Hoyas.
Hatten and Glover were a combined four-for-17 heading into the locker room, but key plays by Cuffe and Reynolds kept SJU close.
“When I couldn’t get my offense going,” Hatten said. “These guys stepped it up for me the whole game – Grady Reynolds, Kyle Cuffe, Anthony Glover, Elijah Ingram. And when they were struggling, I helped them.”
That was the case of the Red Storm as a whole this season. Never giving up, always fighting until the last second.
“I’m very, very proud of the team,” Jarvis said. “I’ll just remember the fact that they never quit. They never quit on me and they never quit on themselves.”