St. John’s win delivered emotions that come with mattering once again


Here’s the funny part of falling back in love with a basketball team. All around Madison Square Garden — or, at least, the two-thirds of the 11,832 on hand who were wearing red and hollering themselves hoarse about St. John’s — as the final seconds bled away, there was a tangible tension, a pervasive unease.

The Johnnies should have put Providence away in the first half, and didn’t. After the Friars ambushed them to start the second half, the Red Storm should’ve really sent them running for the buses when the lead pushed a dozen. Didn’t. So now it was coming down to free throws. Brady Dunlap, nursing a bum ankle, shot once. Missed. He shot again.

Missed again.

And you could see what was flashing before the eyes of the disbelieving true believers inside the old gym: this was going to end badly. This was going to kill the buzz that had been building in earnest around this team. This was looming calamity …

Then RJ Luis Jr. somehow snuck behind the Providence rebounders. He snared the ball. It wouldn’t be official until Luis sank a free throw, then harassed Jayden Pierre into a hurried prayer of a 3, but when the buzzer finally groaned — and the Johnnies’ fans finally exhaled — it was a 75-73 win for the home team, a 4-1 Big East record for the first time since 2001 and a tie for first place in the league.

St. John’s center Joel Soriano looks for the open man during St. John’s 75-73 win over Providence.. Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

“When you’re able to win and learn,” Rick Pitino said, “that’s fabulous.”

Even better, the faithful who came to the Johnnies’ first conference game at the Garden were allowed to feel the kind of tortured range of emotions that are never expended when a program is trapped in a vacuum of irrelevance, the way this one has been for so long. The Villanova game had sparked an old-school outpouring for this team. The first few minutes Wednesday — up 10-0, up 20-5 — added to the glee.

And the near-collapse at the end forced a full-house of feelings: angst, panic, fear and, ultimately, reprieve.

“It was ugly at the end,” said Daniss Jenkins, brilliant all night, 16 points and eight assists and a sneering toughness that Pitino wishes would be contagious for the rest of his roster. “But that kind of a win makes you a team.”

St. John’s coach Rick Pitino Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

Said Pitino: “If we would’ve won by 20, I really believe we would’ve gone to Creighton and gotten our asses handed to us.”

Reality check: that may still happen Saturday afternoon, when the Johnnies travel to Omaha’s CHI Health Center to take on the Bluejays, who at No. 22 in the AP poll are the only other Big East school besides UConn and Marquette to be ranked. St. John’s is still very much of a work in progress.

But Pitino had vowed from the start that his team would be better in January than it was in November, reminding everyone on Wednesday: “The team you saw against Michigan [in the season’s second game] wasn’t very good.” And he seems confident that it’ll be even better in February and March than it is now. Until proven otherwise, these are things he knows about, as well as anyone.

“I have high aspirations for them,” he said of his team. “I have great hopes for them.”

Providence Friars guard Jayden Pierre takes a last-second shot and misses to end the game on Wednesday night. Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

It was a good night for them, despite the stumbles at the end. Providence has been clearly kneecapped by the loss of Bryce Hopkins. But they are still a tough, well-coached team, and guard Devin Carter (31 points, 13 rebounds) was dominant. And while the Johnnies had played two warm-up games at the Garden — that no-show loss to Michigan, and an easy win against neighborhood-rival Fordham — this was their Big East debut here.

There were plenty of Providence fans scattered about, but as Pitino conceded, for now filling the Garden will be as incumbent on Providence, Villanova and UConn alums as St. John’s fans. It was still a splendid night at the old gym. Providence took a brief lead in the second half, the Friars faithful cleared its throat. St. John’s survived. It sounded that way.

“The Garden is where everyone dreams of playing,” said Pitino, who has told the story for years about signing his scholarship papers at UMass on the Garden floor while watching the Minutemen and Marquette play an NIT game in March 1970. “I tear up every time I hear the starting lineup because of my memories at MSG.”

(So it’s time to cool it about having UConn come to Carnesecca Arena to celebrate Looie’s centennial next year, OK? UConn is a Garden foe. For now, Georgetown — against whom Looie had his most memorable battles — is an Alumni Hall foe, and the Hoyas should help him celebrate his 100th next year. End of story.)

Pitino’s team made some new memories Wednesday — and almost caused more than a few nervous breakdowns among the fervent. Good. Agony beats indifference every day of the week. Especially here.

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