St. John’s Upsets Pitt at Madison Square Garden

NEW YORK—It’s time to consider St. John’s a favorite to win the Big East tournament. With today’s 60-59 victory over No. 4 Pittsburgh, the Red Storm improved its season record to 7-1 at Madison Square Garden, the venue for the conference tourney. Pitt joins Georgetown, Notre Dame, Duke, and Connecticut as top-13 teams (both at the time and currently) that lost to St. John’s at the World’s Most Famous Arena.

The Red Storm beat Notre Dame by 18, Duke by 15, and UConn by 17, but this win was probably the most impressive. Pitt (24-3, 12-2 Big East) had not lost on the road yet this season and was aided by the return of leading scorer Ashton Gibbs, who had missed the previous three games with a knee injury.

Pitt has also had great success at the Garden. Since the 2000-01 season, the Panthers were 26-11 overall at MSG and had reached the finals of seven Big East tournaments (winning two). They had already won twice at the Garden earlier this season (beating Maryland and Texas). But Dwight Hardy’s twisting layup with 1.2 seconds left gave St. John’s (17-9, 9-5) a one-point victory and sent yet another message to the rest of the Big East.

“That moment was pretty surreal. To see the ball settle into the net and look up at the clock with that crowd on its feet and realize we had an opportunity to beat Pittsburgh, the number four team in the country, on that shot, was pretty special,” said St. John’s head coach Steve Lavin.

It was a moment Lavin wasn’t sure he’d get to experience. It was a back and forth game in the second half, but Pitt held a six-point advantage with under seven minutes remaining. That’s when Lavin noticed his team was “deflated.”

“I was encouraging the group for the last four minutes to have fun,” Lavin said. “I felt there was a stretch where we were playing joyless basketball.” At the final media timeout he told his players “It’s about enjoying this moment and playing with passion.”

The Red Storm responded. Pittsburgh entered the game No. 1 in the country in rebounding margin (+12) and tops in the Big East in free throws attempted. St. John’s, meanwhile, was last in the conference in rebounds per game. But when it mattered the most the Johnnies were more Pitt-like than the Panthers themselves, attempting 12 free throws over the last six minutes and grabbing a couple of critical offensive boards.

For the game, each team had 31 rebounds; it was just the second time this season that Pitt failed to grab at least 10 offense rebounds. From the free throw line, St. John’s hit 23-of-32 from the line while Pitt was just 10-of-18.

Lavin said his team’s goal before the season was to make the NCAA Tournament, to send the 10 seniors out on a high note. “I’d say in terms of the number of wins over quality opponents, we may be a bit ahead of schedule,” he said. “My hope was by March to have a dangerous, scrappy, opportunistic team that could beat anybody in the country if they didn’t bring an ‘A’ game or if they overlooked us. It appears we’ve hit that in late January and February.”

It’s possible that Georgetown or Notre Dame or maybe even Duke overlooked St. John’s. It’s highly doubtful that Pittsburgh did, but it lost anyway. St. John’s has shown it is a team capable of winning the Big East tournament—even if it won’t have quite the same fan advantage as it does for its true home games at the Garden—and one that won’t be an easy out in the NCAA Tournament.

“I think it gives us a good advantage in the Big East Tournament, playing on our home court,” Hardy the hero said. “It shows we’re dangerous here, we come to play. The crowd just backs us up. It’s like extra people on the court when they’re here.”

Notes:

  • Gibbs sat the first five minutes of the game but carried Pitt in the first half. St. John’s led by as many as nine with 7:43 left but Pitt closed with a 15-5 run to take a 27-26 lead. Gibbs had 15 of his team’s final 20 points of the half. He finished with a game-high 26. No other Pitt player scored more than seven.
  • Gibbs was asked if he thinks Pitt has the pieces for a Final Four run. “Yeah, I think so,” he said. “We have all the pieces. Everybody’s unselfish. I think everybody knows their role. We just have to keep it up on the defensive end. Defense and rebounding affects our offense, so if we do those things we’ll be fine on the offensive end too.”
  • In a one-point game, obviously every point counts, and Pitt was hurt by having some poor foul shooters. Nasir Robinson (54.5 percent from the line on the season), Gary McGhee (48.8 percent), and Dante Taylor (57.5 percent) shot a combined two-for-nine from the stripe.
  • “He probably was expecting help,” Pitt guard Brad Wannamaker said of teammate Gilbert Brown, who defended Hardy on the final basket. “That’s what we focus on. That’s the basis of our defense—forcing it to the baseline and having a guy to help. It was just miscommunication.”
  • Pittsburgh native D.J. Kennedy committed three turnovers and picked up a technical foul in the first half, but came alive in the final six minutes, scoring six points, recording two steals, and grabbing a critical offensive rebound. “I love when DJ plays well,” teammate Justin Burrell said. “When DJ plays well it elevates our team to a new level…For him to get that offensive rebound really lifted our team’s morale.”
  • St. John’s will be ranked on Monday for the first time since Nov. 28, 2000. “I can’t wait,” Burrell said. It’s been four long years without seeing a number. I’m really excited.”

Photos:

Pitt attempts a free throw, something it did not do enough.
Pitt defends against St. John’s in the second half.
Unlike the Duke game, no fans rushed the court this time.
St. John’s seniors Justin Burrell (left) and Dwight Hardy talk to the media after the game.
Dwight Hardy describes (verbally and physically) his game-winning basket.
St. John’s senior and Pittsburgh native D.J. Kennedy and Steve Lavin address media after the game.
Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon addresses the media after the game.
Brad Wanamker and Ashton Gibbs of Pitt address the media after the game.

Videos:

Travon Woodall’s three-pointer to give Pitt a one-point lead with 14 seconds left:

Dwight Hardy’s game-winning layup:

Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon’s opening statement to media:

St. John’s head coach Steve Lavin’s opening statement to media:

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