Johnnies Knocked out of Big East Tournament

Imagine the infinite possibilities of a team making it to a tournament after waiting four long years. Wednesday night, St. John’s was that team. The time to show that they belonged in the Big East Tournament was here, but the time to reach full glory was not yet established as they ultimately fell to No. 18 Marquette 76-67.

The fourth of the first round games at Madison Square Garden proved to be an exhibition of what St. John’s (16-14, 7-9 Big East), who lost their leading scorer Lamont Hamilton to a knee injury, was capable of when it came down to crunch time. Without Hamilton, one would expect the team to come out with a defeatist attitude, expecting a loss, being deficient in senior leadership and effective consistent strength down low. The Red Storm, however, were not ready to roll over and play dead for Marquette (23-8, 10-6), but instead came out with energy, giving the fans a sample of what could be expected next season.

On the offensive end, sophomore forward Anthony Mason, Jr. and senior center Aaron Spears stepped up and went into action. In the opening minutes of the game, the two went on an 8-3 run when Mason connected on two three-pointers and Spears nailed a hook-shot from six feet way.

Despite a minor ligament sprain between his ring and pinky fingers that had to be taped seven minutes into the first half, Mason, Jr. finished strong with 19 points and eight rebounds. Spears turned out his best performance of the season and his career with 18 points. He went 6-for-7 from the field and 6-for-8 from the charity stripe. Freshman center Qa’rraan Calhoun finished with nine points. Junior guard captain Eugene Lawrence dished out 12 assists. Freshman guard Larry Wright, who showed a great deal of potential Wednesday night, contributed with 11 points including three key free throws off a shooting foul on the perimeter.

“I’m real proud of my teammates,” senior guard Daryll Hill said. “Geno is a great leader. Mase, Larry, A.P.-we have a lot of great players here and they are going to pick up the program when we leave.”

The Golden Eagles opened up the game to a 12-point deficit when junior forward Dan Fitzgerald made two free throws after a foul was committed by Wright at the 9:00 mark of the second half. The Johnnies were able to bring the deficit down to as much as four within the last minute of the game. However, the strategy to pick up quick fouls to get the ball back in possession down the stretch backfired as Marquette made 8-of-10 free throws in the last 35 seconds of the game.

“I want [a Big East tournament berth] back bad [and] I wish we could play that game over,” Mason, Jr. said. St. John’s fought with everything they had, but there was just one factor that kept St. John’s from getting into the second round of the championship tournament- rebounds. The Johnnies were beat off the glass 42-28.

“I think we should have rebounded better, but we played hard,” added Mason, Jr. “I’m not satisfied, but I’m proud of us.”

Despite the loss, St. John’s took care of the ball and made a strong attempt to execute well with each possession. The Golden Eagles, who were led by junior forward Dan Fitzgerald’s 20-point effort, still fell short in field goal shooting to the Johnnies being only 38.2 percent, while St. John’s finished 43.8 percent. Red Storm defense was able to hold Marquette’s leading scorer sophomore guard Dominic James, who averaged 14.9 ppg during the regular season, to only nine points, shooting only 2-of-14 from the field.

“I was really proud of our guys,” head coach Norm Roberts said. “It shows that our program is taking some great steps in improving and that the foundation is going to be strong.”

Roberts admitted to being very excited about the growth of his team’s talents. Although looking forward to the future generation of players, one cannot peer ahead without giving the recognition that is due to the players closing the St. John’s chapter of their lives and moving on.

“I told our seniors that nobody can take away from them that they helped St. John’s get back on a winning foundation,” said Roberts. “It was because of their hard work and their perseverance.”

St. John’s will not go on to the championship game on Saturday, but what they accomplished this season shows that the program is headed in the right direction. These feats including an improved season and conference record, an overall improved perimeter shooting percentage, defeating Providence for the first time at MSG since 1995, and clinching a Big East tournament berth for the first time since 2003, cannot be ignored.

A lot can be said about the journey to get to the Big East championship tournament; a three year journey that did not end with finally getting there, but served as a point where those involved in the progression of the program can turn around, wipe the sweat off their foreheads, and see how far they have come.

Then, after a small sense of pride, keep pressing forward.

“I feel that this program will be nothing but better and deeper” Hamilton said. “They’ll be a pretty good team and we’ll always be here rooting for them.”