Being around the St. Johns University mens basketball team is usually a pretty cool thing. Despite all the negative press of late, the multitude of losses and the fact that the team doesnt have a head coach, the Red Storm is still THE Division I program in New York City.
And that isnt a none-too-subtle jab at interim skipper Kevin Clark or any of the players; those are just the facts. Things havent been too pleasant for the team this season on the court or off so it was with an ounce of optimism that I jumped in my slowly disintegrating car last week to catch the Storms not-so-epic battle against the Miami Hurricanes at Alumni Hall.
Even with Mike Jarvis disappearing in the distance of the teams rearview mirror, Willie Shaws getting arrested a seemingly fading memory and the hope of a winning season all but blasted to heck, SJU can still draw the media. Being the top dog in the worlds greatest city can do that, even if theres more bark than bite these days.
For a little while during that game played Jan. 14 the Red Storm had me thinking that perhaps that was the day, the game, where it would start to turn things around.
By no stretch is Miami a great team, not even among the best in the Big East. That honor goes to teams such as Pittsburgh, Connecticut and, of course, the defending national champion Syracuse Orangemen. But the Hurricanes have some talent and could find themselves in the NCAA Tournament by seasons end, so by no means was St. Johns likely to win.
In seasons past I would have said the Storm was aided by the fact that they were playing an on-campus conference game. But when you lose inside the cozy confines of Alumni Hall to the likes of Fairfield and Hofstra, beating Miami isnt close to a mortal lock.
Still, the Hurricanes were a good match for the Storm. Relatively small up front sans senior scorer Darius Rice Miami has been outworked, outhustled and outmuscled by the Johnnies in recent years. A similar kind of blue-collar effort would be needed again this year for the Storm.
For a while, at least, it looked like thats exactly what would happen.
After shaking off an opening possession NBA three-pointer by Guillermo Diaz, slowly but surely St. Johns started to outwork Miami on the offensive end and shut down the Hurricanes defensively.
Trailing 9-6, St. Johns scored seven straight to take a 13-9 lead at the 14:02 mark of the first half. St. Johns took the lead by using its quickness on both ends of the floor and its size advantage inside.
The Red Storm seemed in control of the game if you can believe it for most of the first half. The team was being careful with the ball, not committing stupid fouls and hitting a good percentage of its shots (53.6 percent in the first half).
But as has been the case all season long, the competitive fire and solid play was fleeting.
A quick look at the Red Storms 2003-2004 schedule shows just how close St. Johns seems to be to a respectable team. The Storm opened with a hard-fought loss to a ranked Marquette team but then fell asleep and got upset by Fairfield in overtime, the first loss to the Stags in program history.
They bounced back to beat Stony Brook, then got blown out against Hofstra at home, hung tough for a while before being clobbered by the Duke Blue Devils and managed to narrowly defeat St. Francis College.
This led to the ax falling on Jarvis job, just in time for the team to play the then No. 5-ranked Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. To the amazement of most, the Johnnies hung tough again only to lose down the stretch to a truly better team.
They followed that with a loss to Pennsylvania, setting up the first back-to-back wins of the year, against Holy Cross and Niagara. SJU then lost to Syracuse by just six and were pounded by Seton Hall four days before hosting the Hurricanes.
It seemed that SJU had an answer for every Miami run, until it mattered most. After allowing Miami to get within one in the final seconds, an SJU turnover allowed Robert Hite to score with one second left in the first half and enable Miami to take all the momentum and the lead into halftime.
Unfortunately, that kind of occurrence has become typical.
The game nearly got out of hand with the visiting teams scoring the first eight points of the second half to go up by nine. But the gutsy SJU players fought back, tying the game on an Elijah Ingram three with 8:17 remaining.
But all the energy the team used to pull even abandoned it over the next few minutes, with the Storm scoring just three points in four minutes to allow Miami to go back up by seven on a William Frisby basket at the four-minute mark.
The deficit was four in the final minute, but there would be no miracle finish for St. Johns, just another slow and agonizing journey to another loss that should have been a win.
Leaving the game that night and staring at the final stat sheet, I couldnt help but feel bad for the Red Storm. For the most part theyre just kids, after all. But a few more losses like that, like the one against Villanova Sunday, and they will be bitter old men in no time. Just like me.
Reach Sports Editor Anthony Bosco by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 130.
©2004 Community News Group
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