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Bosco’s Corner: Home court helps SJU in NIT run

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I didn’t know how the game would turn out, but I went to Alumni Hall last Thursday knowing full well that it might be the last time I’d get to see the St. John’s University men’s basketball team in action this season and perhaps the last time I’d ever get to see Marcus Hatten up close.

The Red Storm was facing the University of Alabama-Birmingham in the quarterfinals of the National Invitation Tournament, and by most accounts St. John’s was in a tough spot.

But thanks to a rowdy and raucous student section, St. John’s rose to the challenge, fending off a determined Blazers squad for the right to advance to the semifinals to face “The General,” Bobby Knight and his Texas Tech team.

St. John’s managed the win without a prime time Hatten. Hatten, battling a stomach virus, was woefully ineffective, turning over the ball 10 times and scoring a measly 15 points in his Alumni Hall swan song. Still, the Storm found a way.

And it is hard to dismiss the possibility that the NIT wanted nothing more than St. John’s sliding into the semifinals to face Knight. St. John’s is the only local team in the NIT Final Four, with Big East rival Georgetown in the other semifinal against Minnesota.

The NIT, or the “Not Invited Tournament,” as it is called in more cynical circles, has the not-so-wonderful distinction of being the tournament for teams with winning records that failed to make the 65-team field of the NCAA Tournament. Be that as it may, the NIT also suffers a tremendous lack of media coverage and fan interest, something that is obvious at every NIT game, St. John’s included.

Prior to the Red Storm’s first-round game against Boston University, the emptiest I had ever seen Alumni Hall for a men’s game was against a non-conference game against the University of San Francisco that took place after a major snowstorm. But that NIT first-round match-up against the Terriers beat out that mark easily.

And Boston University had two starters out of St. Francis Prep, a high school just a stone’s throw away from the Jamaica campus.

The St. John’s team players appeared to be a little less disinterested than the fans who didn’t bother to show up, narrowly avoiding an upset that day, 62-57. The one saving grace of the game was the newly implemented student section of Alumni Hall.

The section, which basically consisted of the entire lower level directly opposite the players’ benches and right behind press row, was jam-packed with rabid SJU supporters, some of whom donned face paint, fright wigs and enough red to drive the entire city of Pamplona into a frenzy.

The students also exercised their knowledge of every foul word in the English cannon. It was one thing for the Boston University players to have to play a road tournament game, but even I had to wince at some of the pointed barbs that no doubt stung more than a few of the Terriers players.

During the regular season, the stands behind press row are filled with families, long-time supporters and even little kids, some of whom had a penchant for kicking local sports reporters in the back when they got bored.

But in an effort to liven up the usually listless NIT, the brain trust at SJU opened up the stands to the students, something that certainly paid dividends against the upset-minded Terriers.

For their efforts, or lack thereof, against Boston University, the Red Storm was awarded a second-round game against the University of Virginia. The stands were again half full, maybe a little more considering Virginia is an ACC team that posed a legitimate threat to SJU.

St. John’s fought off a slow start and was spurred on again by the fans, who were now more rowdy than ever. Even though the place was at half-capacity, I don’t think I had heard Alumni Hall louder all season.

The result was a 73-63 win for the Johnnies, who found out soon after the game that they had been awarded yet another home game, this time against UAB.

The Blazers had also barely gotten out of the first round, edging past Louisiana-Lafayette, 82-80, before traveling to take on Sienna in the second round. UAB won again, this time by an 80-71 margin.

With 21 wins, the Blazers could have expected to host their third round match-up against St. John’s, but the NIT chose to have UAB play at Alumni Hall, the Storm’s third home game of the tournament, which gave SJU a more than realistic shot of making the Final Four.

As fate would have it, St. John’s won despite an ill Hatten, thanks to the play of Anthony Glover, Grady Reynolds and Kyle Cuffe, all of whom scored in double digits.

So, St. John’s moves on to play Texas Tech in the marquee match-up of the other Final Four at Madison Square Garden, the Red Storm’s home away from home.

With such treatment, it is easy to see how St. John’s has won the NIT a record five times. But whether they win it or not, the favorable treatment the team has received from NIT, intentional or not, has enabled coach Mike Jarvis and Co. to salvage a stinker of a season.

Reach Sports Editor Anthony Bosco by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 130.

Posted 7:03 pm, October 10, 2011
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