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‘Nova holds off late Storm surge in season finale

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The former Cardozo High School star knows there are several teams around the Big East conference that are happy the St. John's men's basketball team won't be competing in the Big East tournament."They don't really say it, but I can see it on their faces that they mean it," Hill said. "They don't want to say it in words."Because of self-imposed penalties resulting from an internal investigation into former player Abe Keita's claims he received payments from a member of last year's Red Storm coaching staff, the Johnnies' season ended Saturday at Madison Square Garden.A 70-68 loss to No. 19 Villanova ended the first season of the Norm Roberts era. And although they lost twice as many games as they won, the Johnnies know their season was a success."It was because everybody expected us to fail," said first-year forward and Bayside resident Ryan Williams, also a Cardozo grad. "Everybody expected to be No. 12 in the conference, they didn't think we'd get any Big East wins, they didn't expect us to do anything. They thought it would be a wasted year but we proved everybody wrong."In fact, St. John's (9-18, 3-13 Big East) didn't finish last in the Big East, as the conference coaches' predicted in the preseason. The Johnnies finished in 11th place, one spot above Rutgers.Roberts faced an imposing task when he took the job in April. The Red Storm was coming off the worst season in the program's proud history. The team was 6-21 and the year was marred by several off-court embarrassments, including the Pittsburgh strip club scandal.But Roberts changed the attitude. It was first done internally, with the Red Storm's work ethic, their never-say-die attitude. And eventually it brought back the fans. There were upset wins over ranked teams North Carolina State and Pittsburgh at Madison Square Garden and on Saturday - while there was a healthy contingent of Villanova fans - the crowd of 8,894 was for the most part in the Red Storm's corner.They were on their feet late in the second half, when St. John's battled back from 16 points down to tie the game at 65 on a pair of Lamont Hamilton free throws with 55.1 seconds left."We could have folded our tent and just said it's the last game of the year but these guys don't do that. They don't fold their tent and that shows how much character these kids have," Roberts said. "It has nothing to do with coaches. That's what's in their chests. They really fought back hard and stayed together."But Villanova (21-6) answered right back. Will Sheridan, who had a monster game (19 points, 12 rebounds), tipped the ball in with 40.2 seconds left to put the Wildcats ahead, 67-65.Sheridan then fouled Eugene Lawrence, but the freshman guard went 1-of-2 from the line.Cedric Jackson picked up his fifth foul eight seconds later and after Allan Ray (22 points) buried a pair of free throws, Hill brought the Red Storm to within 69-68 on a runner with 13.7 seconds left.Lawrence then fouled Ray - his fifth - and the junior from the Bronx sank just the second foul shot and with 7.8 seconds left the Red Storm had a chance to win or send the game into overtime.Without Jackson and Lawrence, Hill (31 points) was the lone guard on the floor in the closing seconds. Roberts had instructed Phil Missere to inbound the ball and for Dexter Gray to set a screen for Hill. But it was Gray who inbounded the ball to Missere, whose ill-advised cross-court pass was picked off by Randy Foye to end the game.But even into the final seconds of their season, the Red Storm hustled. They chased Foye in an attempt to foul and the 2004-05 season ended with Missere crashing into the press tables.In the end, there were no heads hung low, no embarrassment over a losing season. The St. John's players proudly walked off the court, anxious to get back on it again."It feels great, I love St. John's," said Hamilton, who had 20 points. "I can't wait for next year."Reach Sports Editor Dylan Butler by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 143.

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