Madison Square Garden has been a second home to St. John's men's basketball teams over the last eight decades, but this current team has turned the building at 33rd Street and Eighth Avenue into a house of horrors for highly ranked teams.
The latest of the Red Storm's five wins over teams regarded as the best in the country was a heart-stopping, come-from-behind thriller over No. 4 Pittsburgh that has the players thinking of joining the ranks of the ranked themselves.
"I can't wait," St. John's forward Justin Burrell said of the Red Storm moving into the top 25. "It's been a long four years without that number. We deserve to see that number."
It's actually been just over a decade since St. John's was listed in The Associated Press poll.
Dwight Hardy's underhanded flip with 1.2 seconds left Saturday gave the Red Storm a 60-59 victory, their fifth this season over a team that spent time in the top 10 – and all of them have been at Madison Square Garden.
A crowd of 14,514 was up and standing, harkening back to the days when it was Hall of Fame coach Lou Carnesecca and Chris Mullin providing the thrills. On Saturday, it was first-year coach Steve Lavin and Hardy who were the stars.
Carnesecca was known for his homespun style of coaching, keeping the players free from the pressure of being the biggest college program in New York City. Lavin's not far off.
"He's calm. He's the calmest out of everybody, just sitting there smiling and tells us we're going to win the game and to stick with it," Hardy said of Lavin, who returned to coaching after seven years as a TV analyst. "He talks to each of individually as the huddle breaks. He tell us what he wants from us and to play basketball the way we've been playing since we were five years old."
Lavin is dressing the part as well. Since the Coaches vs. Cancer weekend when all coaches wear sneakers to raise awareness of the disease, Lavin has stayed with the laid-back style.
"For the rest of my career, I don't anticipate ever going back to a tie or dress shoes ever again," Lavin said. "We're 6-1 with sneakers that started to bring attention to a great cause.
Hardy, who finished with 19 points, started his game-winning drive near midcourt, went past Gilbert Brown twice as he defended him on the right side. He went to the baseline and underhanded the ball up and over the rim to give the Red Storm (17-9, 9-5 Big East) another highly ranked victim in Madison Square Garden.
"I knew the ball was going to be in my hands during the timeout," said Hardy, who has scored over 30 points twice in the last five games. "Once I couldn't make my initial move, I just had to go with my instincts, not think, and I had a layup with reverse spin, made the shot and no one was on my side. When I saw that, I elevated as quick as I could so no one could come over and block it."
Pitt's Ashton Gibbs called it "a tough play."
"It was a tough layup he made, but you're always cautious of not fouling," he said. "He made a tough shot."
St. John's has beaten then-No. 13 Georgetown, No. 9 Notre Dame, No. 3 Duke and No. 10 Connecticut, all big wins in the eyes of the NCAA tournament selection committee and the Red Storm are looking for their first bid since 2002.
Gibbs, who missed the last three games with an MCL injury to his left knee, came back in a big way for the Panthers (24-3, 12-2), who had won five straight overall and five in a row over St. John's. The junior guard finished with a career-high 26 points and was 6 of 9 from the three-point line, matching Pittsburgh's total number of three's in his absence.
"I knew my knee was fine," he said. "It was a tough loss. We had so many chances to win in the last three minutes. We slipped up and lost on our own."
Pitt led 56-51 with 3:20 to play on a jumper by Brad Wannaker. That was the Panthers' last field goal until the final 11 seconds.
Hardy's winner was the eighth lead change of the second half and it was tied five times. It was also the Red Storm's only field goal in the final 6 minutes as they went 10 of 12 from the free throw line in that span.
Travon Woodall hit the only three-pointer not from Gibbs with 11.3 seconds left to give the Panthers a 59-58 lead. After a timeout by Pittsburgh, St. John's started a final play and Hardy delivered.
"I was proud how we handled things down the stretch," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "Travon made a great shot and we put ourselves in a good position. Give credit to them for taking a tough shot and getting it to fall."
St. John’s returned to Carnesecca Arena, its on-campus home, for a 7 p.m. contest against DePaul on February 23.