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No Joke: Red Storm blows Big East opener

The St. John's men's basketball team's Big East opener was a comedy of errors and Seton Hall's Paul Gause was set up to be the ultimate court jester.

When the freshman guard stole Eugene Lawrence's inbound pass and laid the ball up - into his own basket - he gave the Red Storm a 20-point lead with 11:54 left. But the joke was on St. John's. Rather, the joke was St. John's, which imploded in a 69-61 overtime loss to Seton Hall at the Continental Airlines Arena Wednesday night.

Gause rebounded nicely, burying a buzzer-beating bucket to send the game into overtime. There Seton Hall (9-3, 1-0 Big East) took its first lead on a pair of Donald Copeland free throws with 4:16 left and never looked back as the Pirates completed a stunning 28-point turnaround.

"You've got to make a basket to stop the run and then once you can stop the run, you're fine," St. John's coach Norm Roberts said. "But we weren't able to do that."

And when Copeland, who finished with 20 points, stepped to the line with 20 seconds left and the Pirates comfortably ahead, the same fans in the student section that directed "Fire Louie," chants at Seton Hall coach Louis Orr serenaded the Red Storm with the Goodbye song.

It was a monumental collapse by St. John's, which carried its largest halftime lead of the year - 17 - into the second half and led by 20, 49-29, with 9:39 left in regulation.

Playing a Seton Hall team that literally couldn't shoot straight - the Pirates shot 36.2 percent from the field and 16.7 percent from three-point range - the Red Storm appeared to be well on their way to snapping a 24-game road losing streak and winning their conference opener.

But St. John's, playing without injured star guard Daryll Hill (day-to-day) for a third straight game, wilted under Seton Hall's full-court press and Seton Hall went on a 23-4 run that ended the second half.

"It wasn't anything I haven't seen," Lawrence said of the Pirates' pressure.

Kelly Whitney scored a game-high 23 points, including 11-of-14 from the free throw line, and Copeland had 20 points - 16 after the first half in the biggest comeback of the Louis Orr era at Seton Hall.

"You've got to learn to persevere and not to quit and our guys epitomized that tonight," Orr said. "I'm so happy for them."

Aaron Spears led St. John's (7-5, 0-1) with 15 points, including 13 on 6-of-6 shooting in a torrid first half. Lawrence had 14 points, 10 assists and eight turnovers, several in the final moments of the second half. Lamont Hamilton was almost nonexistent, scoring seven points on 3-of-13 shooting from the field and grabbing three rebounds.

"I just think they did a good job guarding," Hamilton said.

St. John's hosts Georgetown at Madison Square Garden Sunday at 7 p.m.

"It's not devastating, it's one game into the [Big East] season," Roberts said. "If we go back and play well on Sunday and beat Georgetown, it's a positive and we don't worry about it."

Reach Sports Editor Dylan Butler by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 143.

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