The players in the locker room were upbeat, as opposed to downtrodden and sullen like they were after bad losses to Fordham, Ohio State and Hofstra.
They had good reason to be. St. John's went toe-to-toe with the No. 10 ranked team in the country at their on-campus home. And if it hadn't been for Caron Butler's buzzer-beating desperation three-pointer at the end of regulation, the Red Storm would have been celebrating a well-deserved road win.
"Usually we're mad, we sulk, but we're not that upset because we can see how much better we are playing," said point guard Omar Cook, who had 11 points and 15 assists in his first head-to-head duel with fellow New York City point guard Taliek Brown. "We played so hard. You can't just look at the negative, because there was so much positive."
Cook's play was one of the positives for St. John's (7-6, 1-1) in the overtime loss. In the Red Storm's December losses, the 6-foot-1 freshman played out of control, forcing shots and causing almost as many turnovers as assists.
But against UConn (12-2, 1-1), Cook played with the composure of an upperclassman in running the point. The Christ the King grad, who is second in the nation with 9.1 assists per game, distributed the ball well, finding fellow freshman Willie Shaw for open shots from the perimeter or into the post to Anthony Glover.
"Probably the best thing that happened for us is that we lost some basketball games early in the year which gave Omar the chance to go about being what he is, which is a developing great point guard," St. John's head coach Mike Jarvis said. "Now I think he's much more relaxed and he's playing great basketball and getting better every single game."
Shaw again proved he is one of the best spot up shooters in the Big East. He was spectacular in the first half, going 4-for-6 from the field and 3-for-5 from three-point range for 14 points. He finished with a team-high 25 points.
Cook's lone three off a Glover screen gave St. John's its largest lead of the game, 40-25 with 1:37 left in the first half, but the Huskies battled back and went on a 6-0 run at the end of the half to cut their deficit to 40-31.
Led by Brown at the point and forward Johnnie Selvie, who scored a game-high 26 points, the Huskies got out and running on the Red Storm, going on a 19-3 run, capped by Albert Mouring's 16-footer, as UConn took the lead and the momentum, 60-52 with 8:55 left.
"In the first half we were playing all right, we just weren't running fast enough," said Selvie, who went 10-for-12 from the field and had six blocks. "In the second half we kept pushing the ball among each other and that's what started the fast break. We had some good blocks and some outlet passes."
Connecticut extended its lead to nine, 66-57, on an Edmund Saunders alley-oop dunk from Mouring, sending the rabid sell-out crowd of 10,027 into a frenzy.
The young St. John's team bent, but did not break. Alpha Bangura, Kyle Cuffe (eight points and eight rebounds) and Shaw combined to lead the Red Storm in outscoring UConn 11-2 over the next three minutes to get within one, 68-67 with 3:25 remaining.
Selvie followed with an unbelievable turnaround chuck from 16 feet out as the shot clock ran out to put UConn ahead, 70-67. But Shaw answered right back with is sixth three-pointer of the game to tie the game at 70 with 2:36 left in the second half.
Two huge plays by Glover, finishing an alley-oop layup from Cook and then drawing a double team on the right blocks and finding Cuffe for an uncontested baseline dunk, followed to put the Red Storm ahead, 74-70, with 32 seconds left.
"We had the momentum early, Connecticut got it and then our kids just hung tough and got it back," Jarvis said. "I told our kids if we were able to get the lead again down the stretch that we were going to win the game. I really thought we were. Maybe it wasn't meant to be, yet. This team is going to be really good before it's over."
But then Butler's own baseline dunk brought UConn to within two, 74-72, and with 14 seconds left in the game, Cook was fouled by Brown and went to the line for a one-and-one bonus. He missed the free throw, but grabbed the loose ball after Glover tipped the rebound and was fouled again by Brown.
With 11 seconds left Cook hit the front end, but missed the second free throw. Glover again got a piece of the rebound and Cuffe had a chance to grab the ball in front of the St. John's bench, but the freshman let it bounce out of bounds, giving the Huskies a chance to tie the game with 8.2 seconds left in the game.
And Connecticut capitalized. Brown dished the ball to Butler, who worked off a Saunders pick. Despite being tightly guarded by Bangura, Butler somehow found a way to get off a shot from the top of the key and nailed it - his first three of the game - sending the classic into overtime.
"We talked about not fouling the three-point shooter," said Bangura, who had 18 points. "I didn't have a lot of confidence in his shot. I thought I could have played better defense. I just wanted to play solid defense, not too aggressive, but at the same time not lazy."
"You know he's going to take it because that kid wants to take the big shot and I've seen him make a lot of them when he was playing AAU ball," Jarvis added. "You just hope it's one of the big ones that he'll miss, but he doesn't miss too many big shots. He makes big plays all the time."
Souleymane Wane, who was silent through regulation, went 2-for-4 from the line in overtime to give the Huskies an 82-80 lead. St. John's had several chances to tie the game in the final 25 seconds, but Shaw missed a three-pointer. Glover grabbed the rebound and Bangura's jumper rimmed out. Glover grabbed his sixth rebound of the game and missed a shot in the lane before falling over Wane, who was lying prone in the paint, with five seconds left after contact in the lane.
Jarvis was irate at the non-call and screamed at official Reggie Greenwood at center court during the Red Storm's time-out. Jarvis did not want to talk about the situation after the game.
"I tripped over [Wane] and just landed on the floor," said Glover, who had 11 points. "I thought I got fouled, he was just laying there. Things don't always go your way."
St. John's 89, Virginia Tech 64. It was not the kind of introduction to Big East play the Hokies wanted. Cook led all scorers with 23 points while Shaw had 16 points, Glover had 15 points and Reggie Jessie added 12 for the Red Storm last Wednesday night.
After a battle with undefeated Boston College at Madison Square Garden in a game scheduled for Wednesday night, the Red Storm return to the road to face conference foe Rutgers Sunday at noon.
©2001 Community News Group
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