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St. John’s suspends Diakite, Hamilton for rest of season

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St. John’s University announced Tuesday it was suspending basketball players Mohamed Diakite and Lamont Hamilton for the remainder of the 2003-04 basketball season.

Diakite and Hamilton, two frontcourt reserves for the struggling Red Storm, were initially suspended by the school Feb. 5 in the wake of false rape allegations made by a Queens woman levied at three team members who have withdrawn, been expelled or permanently removed from the team. But St. John’s had not decided until this week how long the suspensions would last.

A sixth player involved in the incident, freshman Tyler Jones, was suspended for two games — losses to Boston College and West Virginia — for violating team curfews and then reinstated this past week.

“St. John’s University and head men’s basketball coach Kevin Clark announced today that the suspensions of Mohamed Diakite and Lamont Hamilton will continue through the end of this season,” the St. John’s Athletic Department said in a statement issued Tuesday. “The university will review both players future status with the team upon completion of the academic school year.”

In all, six team members were implicated in the incident, which took place at the Westin Convention Center Hotel in Pittsburgh just hours after the team was defeated by the University of Pittsburgh Panthers, 71-51, Feb. 4.

Senior Grady Reynolds, who was already on university probation stemming from an arrest last year after an on-campus altercation with a female student, was expelled from the school. Sophomore point guard Elijah Ingram, the team’s leading scorer, voluntarily withdrew from the university, choosing not to go through a scheduled disciplinary hearing, while grad student center Abe Keita was given a one-year suspension and permanently removed from the team following his hearing last week.

According to Pittsburgh police, Sherri Ann Urbanek-Bach, 38, claimed to have met the players at Club Erotica, a strip club in the McKees Rocks suburb of Pittsburgh, and accompanied the group, which included as many as six team members, to their hotel in the downtown area.

Urbanek-Bach later called police at about 4 a.m. Feb. 5, claiming she had been raped by members of the St. John’s team, police said, after they refused to pay her for sex.

According to sources close to the team, Reynolds, Keita and Ingram were questioned by police and subsequently released after a recording from one of the players’ cell phones confirmed that no rape had taken place.

Diakite, a 6-foot-10 native of Bamoko, Africa by way of Montrose Christian Academy in Rockville, Md., was a back-up center on the team, averaging just 6.4 minutes in the 15 games in which he played, starting two.

Hamilton, a talented 6-foot-9 freshman forward out of Brooklyn, was averaging 5.9 points and 4.2 rebounds per game prior to his suspension.

Diakite, Hamilton and a student manager for the team were reportedly in the hotel room during the incident, while Jones, who was also at the adult club, returned to his room.

Diakite and Hamilton are expected to return to the team next year. Diakite, who has been plagued by injury and inconsistent play during his time with the team, has one year of eligibility remaining.

The school has continued to take heat over the incident, both from fans and the media. Rev. Donald J. Harrington, president of SJU, in particular, has endured the brunt of that ridicule after angering students while referring to the “culture” of the team in one published interview.

“It has been brought to my attention by Fabrice Armand, Queens student government president, that a number of students have voiced concerns regarding my remarks, quoted in local media,” Harrington wrote in a letter to all St. John’s students last week. “The realization that my words have brought pain and uncertainty to some of our students has brought me far greater sadness than the incident itself.

“I regret deeply and apologize to all of you who have been offended. I will be meeting with Fabrice and other student leaders this week to clarify the concerns and seek assistance in crafting a more sensitive response to these difficult and troubling issues.”

Harrington held a town-hall-type meeting with members of the student body at the campus Friday in an effort to quell concerns over the incident. And in a letter published on the university’s Web site, he also shot down reports that the school is considering terminating the basketball program.

“Many of you may have viewed or read media accounts questioning our commitment to the men’s basketball program,” the letter dated Feb. 13 stated. “This is patently inaccurate, and in an effort to correct this misinformation I have conducted interviews with ESPN and WFAN Radio to clarify our position. St. John’s is not considering nor do we have any plans for discontinuing the men’s basketball program. We are committed to its future and to building a program that is consistent with our core values.”

The return of Jones will be welcome for Clark, the team’s interim head coach, who has been forced to field a team of eight for the last two games, including four walk-ons. Jones will bring the total of eligible scholarship players up to five for the team’s remaining six games.

After an inspiring loss to Boston College, in which walk-on Phil Missere scored 13 points and the Johnnies trailed by just two early in the second half, reality struck hard Feb. 11, when the team took to the road for an 86-52 shellacking at the hands of West Virginia.

Daryll Hill and Kyle Cuffe led St. John’s with 21 and 17 points, respectively, and were the only Red Storm players to finish in double figures.

Following Wednesday night’s game against Georgetown, the Red Storm will be back in action Saturday at Virginia Tech before returning to New York to host the top 10-ranked University of Connecticut Huskies at Madison Square Garden Tuesday at 7 p.m.

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

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