By Lenn Robbins
Nolan Richardson, creator of “40 Minutes of Hell,” once said this about his former player, Mike Anderson:
“There are those that play to play and those who play to win, and Mike was playing to win in every ball game.”
For the first 20 minutes of Wednesday night’s opening round game of the Big East Conference Tournament, Anderson’s St. John’s team was playing (pathetically) to play. In the second half, the Red Storm played like their coach, erasing a 15-point second half deficit with a 23-0 closing run to storm past reviled rival Georgetown, 75-62, in The Garden.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling,” said forward LJ Figueroa, who had a game-high 22 points. “Coach always emphasizes we’re never out of game. We just go out there, play as hard as we can. I mean, honestly, I don’t think anybody knew on the court that we were on a 23-0 run. It just felt like we were out there having fun, and that’s how it’s supposed to feel.”
It was the biggest come-from-behind victory for The Johnnies in 41 years of conference tournament play, an impressive achievement for Anderson, who is in his first season in Queens. He assembled this team on the fly after getting the job in mid-April.
The Big East announced that it will limit attendance for the rest of the tournament because of the spread of the coronavirus. Each team will receive an allotment of 200 tickets per game.
St. John’s is not the most talented team in the Big East but you could do worse walking down a dark alley with these guys by your side. Even after missing their first seven shots of the second half (and committing one turnover) the Johnnies, continued to play to win after falling behind 48-33.
When Georgetown’s Terrell Allen made a layup with 6:31 left, the Hoyas had repulsed a couple of St. John’s mini runs and coach Patrick Ewing seemed to have his team in control with a 62-52 lead. They didn’t score again.
“I thought the last six minutes was a classic,’’ said Anderson.
Not for Georgetown.
“It still doesn’t feel real, to be honest with you,” said guard Jagan Mosley. “After their, I guess, 20-0 run, it kind of still hasn’t hit me that the game ended like that.”
St. John’s forced 10 straight misses and four turnovers. The Hoyas finish 15-17 unless they get a bid to minor postseason tournament.
St. Johns’ 17-15 will face top-seeded Creighton (24-7) at noon Thursday in what will be a near-empty Madison Square Garden. DePaul (16-16), a 70-65 winner over Xavier (19-12) will face Villanova.
St. John’s scorched the Bluejays, 91-71, on March 1st. It was Creighton’s worse conference loss of the season. Creighton will be without guard Marcus Zegarowski who will have surgery on his right knee to repair a torn meniscus suffered in the regular-season finale.
But for one night Anderson should cherish the night they went from playing to play to playing to win.