Two weeks ago, St. John’s players were watching the match-up on TV between Louisville and Villanova, a competitive contest between two ranked teams that ended in a Wildcats victory. Coach Norm Roberts strolled into the room and got the players’ attention.
“I told them, ‘That is us! That’s us,'” Roberts said. “‘That’s our league.'”
This was one day after the team blew a 20-point second-half lead at Seton Hall and eventually fell in overtime. On Saturday as the St. John’s student section stormed the court, the Red Storm proved it can compete with anyone in the 16-team Big East.
Behind 24 points from junior Lamont Hamilton, St. John’s removed No. 9 Pittsburgh from the realm of the unbeaten with a convincing 55-50 win at Madison Square Garden as a crowd of 6,942, including five of the school’s legacy honorees, looked on. Chris Mullin, Mark Jackson, Walter Berry, Lou Carnesecca and Dick McGuire watched as their Johnnies defeated a ranked team for the second time in four days. St. John’s beat No. 17 Louisville on Jan. 17.
“[Chris Mullin] said to me: ‘They’re not only playing for themselves or their families,'” Roberts said. “They’re playing for the people that came before them.”
And for the first 6:29 minutes of the game, it looked like those greats were playing Pittsburgh (15-1, 4-1). The Red Storm got out to a 14-0 start. The Johnnies ended up leading 31-19 at the break.
“Digging a hole of 12 [points] in a 50-point game is devastating,” Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon said.
The hot start set the tone, but the Panthers are not the kind of team to just fold. A 12-0 run culminating in a Carl Krauser layup gave them their first lead of the game, at 48-47 with 2:39 left. It took a strong post move and a few clutch free throws to get the lead back and seal it for St. John’s (10-6, 3-2).
Hamilton, who also had eight rebounds, took a pretty pass from junior guard Daryll Hill down low with 31.9 seconds to go and layed it in to give the Red Storm a 51-48 lead. Hamilton and senior Phil Missere both hit two free throws apiece after Krauser missed two threes that would have tied it.
Krauser, who came into the game averaging 16.3 points a game, was shut down all game by Hill. Pittsburgh’s leading scorer had only 10 points on 5-of-17 shooting.
That was part of a trend of physical play by St. John’s. The team held its conference rivals to 35.2-percent shooting and out-rebounded the Panthers, 36-32.
St. John’s sophomore guard Eugene Lawrence finished with 10 points and also did a solid job guarding freshman Levance Fields, who Lawrence grew up with in Brooklyn and a player that chose Pittsburgh over St. John’s. It’s hard to imagine Fields is regretting his decision, but the team he turned down is looking much better than it did one year ago.
As the Red Storm travels to Connecticut to play the No. 1 Huskies on Wednesday, Hamilton used only two words to describe its confidence coming in:
“Real high. Real high.”