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Here Come the Johnnies

With a trio of seniors and several highly talented underclassmen returning, the common thought before the '06-'07 college basketball season was that not only would St. John's be making the Big East conference tournament for the first time in three years, but that they had all the makings of a team that could be right up there in the top half of one of the best leagues in the nation come seasons end.

Then they actually started playing.

The Red Storm lost three of its first five games, including a 92-60 embarrassment against Maryland on national television, and a 13-point loss at home to Illinois State.  Conference play started on an equally disastrous note for the Johnnies as they lost four straight games by an average of 15 points.

Missing the Big East Tournament for a fourth straight season appaeared to be all but a formality, and fans of a once proud progam reduced to also-ran status began to call for coach Norm Roberts' head. The Johnnies themselves started to practice like a team already looking towards next season, but things changed last Friday.

Fed up with the lacksidasical effort being displayed by his players, Roberts brought Friday's late afternoon practice to a sudden halt. He tore into his team about its lack of passion. He called them out to perform like Big East players. Then he told them to return at 10 p.m., ready to play like they care.

"It rips me up more that we weren't playing to the level of our ability and weren't playing with the intensity we need to," Roberts said. "I can live with a loss if we play our butts off. If we don't give ourselves a chance to be as good as we can be, that frustrates me."

With their backs to the wall two days later, St. John's came out swinging. They frustrated a Syracuse team in the midst of a four-game winning streak that included wins at Villanova and Marquette, with tenacious defense and shocked their in-state rivals 64-60.

"The win against Syracuse was a big confidence booster," junior guard Eugene Lawrence said. "We realized what we're capable doing, what we should have been doing since the beginning of the season and to stick with it."

That leads us to last night when #21 Notre Dame stepped into the world's most famous arena with a sparkling 16-3 record. It quickly became apparent that win #17 would not be authored easily.

The Johnnies shot 59.3 percent from the field and raced out to a 49-41 halftime advantage. Lamont Hamilton scored 23 in the half, more than either Connecticut or Louisville could muster as a team in the opening half a night earlier.

Hamilton, however, would not score another point, and the Storm as a whole missed its first 10 shots coming out of the break.

"I thought we played well in the first half. We played so hard," Roberts said. "In the second half we just could not get a shot to go down for us. We had a bunch of layups and bunnies but the kids showed a lot of toughness and stuck it out."

Qa'rraan Calhoun blocks a Rob Kurz shot

Notre Dame superstar Russell Carter, who finished with a career-high 32, scored the first 11 points in the second half for either team as the Irish quickly turned an 11-point deficit into a three-point advantage.

"I was in a rhythm. Guys were finding me and I was hitting shots," he said of his hot start to the second half. "We saw them play on Sunday and with them being at home, we expected a difficult game. We knew what we were in for."

The Storm's Anthony Mason Jr. answered, scoring even of his nine points in a one-minute span, the last two coming on a jumper with 10:07 to play that gave SJU a 61-59 lead. They held onto the lead until Colin Falls hit a free-throw with 40 seconds left to tie the game at 68.

St. John's ran the clock down to just under 10-seconds left before getting the ball into Hamilton who found a wide open Larry Wright in the corner who took advantage of the collapsed defense and buried a three. The Irish rushed the ball down to the other end of the floor, but Carter's desperation 28-footer caught all iron.

"It felt really good when it left my hands," the freshman Wright said of his first-ever game-winning shot. "When it went in I was still shocked. I couldn't believe it."

Now you might recall that St. John's went on a similar two game spurt last season before completel collapsing and missing the conference tournament. In fact, doesn't it seem like that's happened every year during this three season stretch in which the Red Storm have won just nine league games?

The Johnnies will get the ultimate opportunity to prove themselves to the naysayers when they play at #9 Pitt this Saturday.

So are these guys for real? In the words of Anthony Mason Jr: "We're supposed to be a real good team this year and we are."

If falling to 0-3 on the road in the conference by way of a loss to one of the league's percieved bottom feeders wasn't enough for Notre Dame, the Irish learned Tuesday that  point guard Kyle "Panama Red" McAlarney had been dismissed from school.

McAlarney, a sophomore, started the first 12 games this season for the 22nd-ranked Irish (16-3), averaging 10.3 points and a team best 5.2 assists. The Irish have gone 5-3 since McAlarney was suspended from playing after his arrest for possession of marijuana (one joint) on Dec. 29.

"We played this way for eight games now. Playing-wise I don't think it has had a big effect," Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey said. "I loved Kyle McAlarney. He is really like a son to me and I will miss him. To say it wasn't a dagger to all of us yesterday would be an understatement. Certainly there is closure on the situation right now."

In the only other game of the night, red hot Villanova shut down ice cold Providence's big men and topped the Friars 82-73.

Mike Nardi had a game-high 19 points and Scottie Reynolds added 18 for the Wildcats (14-5, 3-3), who have won three straight.

Sharaud Curry and Dwain Williams had 18 each for PC (13-6, 3-3), which had its 12-game home winning streak snapped.