Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day Tribute: St. John's

Of all the St. John's players of the past four years, none may be remembered more so than D.J. Kennedy. (Photo courtesy of New York Daily News)

Our final edition of Memorial Day tributes takes a look at the team that captured the hearts of a city; and to a lesser extent, a nation as well. After chronicling Seton Hall's first year under Kevin Willard and revisiting the start of something big for Mike Rice and Rutgers; it's time to finally honor the seniors that brought St. John's back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2002, as we remember the "Journey with the Johnnies."

No. 3, Malik Boothe (Photo courtesy of New York Post)
Malik was the exception to the rule: A local kid that decided to stay home as he went to the next level after a stellar career at Christ the King under coach Bob Oliva. After serving as Eugene Lawrence's understudy in his freshman campaign while providing glimpses into a promising future as the starter at the point, Malik never let opponents intimidate him. His tendency to hold nothing back while giving you a little bit of everything in a way that always made his numbers bigger than what they actually were is what made him so good. The little man stood only 5-9; but his positive attitude and intense style of play proves that good things really do come in small packages.

Malik's Defining Moment: It came down to two, but we'll go with February 24, 2010. In Anthony Mason Jr.'s final game at Carnesecca Arena, Boothe drained a three in the final seconds to tie Marquette at 54 and send the game into overtime. The Golden Eagles eventually won on a Jimmy Butler buzzer-beater; but Boothe's heroics sent a rush through the crowd that brought back memories to the days of another Malik, the late Malik Sealy. Also considered was Boothe's performance against West Virginia as a freshman on March 8, 2008, when he calmly hit two free throws to give the Red Storm a brief lead on West Virginia before Joe Mazzulla's driving layup tied the game at the end of regulation.

No. 32, Justin Brownlee (Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated)
The other Justin came to the Johnnies two years ago from junior college in Florida and started out as a reserve under Norm Roberts. Little did we know that the versatile swingman would not only find his way into the everyday lineup for Steve Lavin; but also become one of the irreplaceable pieces to the Red Storm as they shocked the world all the way to the "Big Dance." The most outstanding player in both the Great Alaska Shootout and Holiday Festival, Brownlee was unfazed by his hardware; continuing to be a go-to guy for St. John's through the eighteen games that comprised their Big East schedule, including one against Rutgers that he won while fighting a broken thumb.

JB2's Defining Moment: The Rutgers game stands out, but his efforts in the final ten seconds on January 3, 2011 are Brownlee's official induction into the group of Red Storm legends. After ripping down an offensive rebound from a Dwight Hardy miss, (more on him later) Brownlee drove inside for a layup that gave the Johnnies the lead for good on their way to a 61-58 win over Georgetown that allowed the boys from Queens to improve to 3-0 in conference at that point; a crucial win in a season that saw St. John's win twelve games in the Big East, tying them for third-most in the league.

No. 24, Justin Burrell (Photo courtesy of New York Daily News)
The Johnnies' best player as a freshman underwent a reinvention of sorts throughout his four years, going from a dominating post presence to a reserve after an ankle injury in his junior year to an X-factor that was named the Big East's Sixth Man of the Year this past season. Steve Lavin hardly started the 6-8 forward, but was never afraid to bring him into any of the Storm's 33 contests. Once regarded as a can't-miss prospect, Burrell will live on in the hearts of St. John's fans as someone who never put himself above the team.

JB's Defining Moment: January 3, 2009. Playing in just his third game after returning from facial injuries, Burrell's 18 points and six rebounds while donning his notorious protective facemask provided the perfect complement to a D.J. Kennedy double-double as the Johnnies upset then-No. 7 Notre Dame 71-65 inside Madison Square Garden for what was the biggest win in Norm Roberts' career at the time; as well as what would be the biggest win for the program until the epic upset against Duke two years later.

No. 42, Kevin Clark (Photo courtesy of Scranton Times-Tribune)
The working class hero of the team, one that was just as much a source of inspiration as he was a competitive spirit on and off the court. The Johnnies' equivalent of "Rudy," Clark only saw minutes after the outcome of the game had by and large been decided; but that didn't stop him from letting up, nor did it stop the St. John's faithful from cheering their beloved walk-on in a relentless attempt to will him to a basket every time he touched the floor.

Kevin's Defining Moment: Senior night this past season at Carnesecca Arena. In the Storm's March 5th affair against South Florida, Steve Lavin substituted his starting seniors individually in a classy move so that each one could get a standing ovation. No reaction matched the pop that nearly blew the roof off of Carnesecca when Clark entered, however. With St. John's having already put USF away heading into the final media timeout, a sellout crowd started to chant "We Want Kevin!," and would not stop until Clark made his way out. When Clark did finally come into the game, it was among the louder ovations I personally have heard in four years covering this team. The guard didn't score, but impressed his large fan base with a no-look pass to fellow walk-on Cameron Edison that kids on playgrounds can't even replicate.

No. 15, Dele Coker (Photo courtesy of JohnnyJungle.com)
Another career reserve that didn't get the chance to play as often as he would have liked, Coker made a name for himself with his aggressive style that was a boom for the Johnnies and a bane for opponents that had never seen him before. An effective complement to Tomas Jasiulionis whenever those two were on the court simultaneously, St. John's could count on defensive stands inside while opening their guards up for open looks outside.

Dele's Defining Moment: This one was hard because of his limited action, but we'll go with December 9, 2009. In the SEC/Big East Invitational against Georgia, Coker gave the Madison Square Garden crowd something to talk about while waiting for John Wall and Kentucky to face UConn later on that night with a six-point, five-rebound and five-block performance against Georgia just four days after the Johnnies suffered their first loss of the season, a close defeat at the hands of Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

No. 5, Sean Evans (Photo courtesy of New York Post)
One of two Philadelphia natives on this team, Evans was just as athletic as he was defensively gifted. Never one to light up teams offensively, (unless you count his sophomore campaign, where he averaged ten points per game) Evans' greatest achievements were those that did not show up in the box score. Among the team leaders in rebounds and steals, Evans also improved at the free throw line late in his career to become an underrated player that got closer to being a complete prospect down the road.

Sean's Defining Moment: March 10, 2009 in the Big East tournament against Georgetown; or for those of you who know me well, the "landline game" of WSJU Radio fame. Evans was held scoreless in the first half as D.J. Kennedy and Paris Horne basically carried the Red Storm on their back; but came up big in the final stanza en route to a 12-point, 13-rebound effort that earned him "Vincenzo's Pizza Player of the Game" honors on my postgame show that afternoon, one that saw St. John's upend Georgetown for the second time in seven days, this time by the final of 64-59.

No. 12, Dwight Hardy (Photo courtesy of JohnnyJungle.com)
The team MVP last season and Big East's Most Improved Player. Those are just two of the hundreds of accolades Hardy garnered in his second season with St. John's after coming to Queens from Indian Hills Community College in Iowa, where he spent his first two seasons. Hardy developed from a sixth man with a killer outside shot into a point guard whose refusal to lose provided a mentality in this team that saw St. John's play inspiring basketball on the way to defeating one Top 25 opponent after another. Or, if you're Quinn Rochford, you're a big fan of Hardy wanting to run the ball screen for Justin Brownlee.

Dwight's Defining Moment: The one pictured above, coming on February 19th of this year. "D-Buckets" channeled his inner Baryshnikov according to coach Steve Lavin on this reverse layup in which he appeared to step over the baseline, but it went unnoticed by the officials as Hardy's basket provided the winning margin for St. John's in their 60-59 upset of then-No. 4 Pittsburgh as the Storm moved one step closer at the time to an NCAA Tournament appearance.

No. 23, Paris Horne (Photo courtesy of Slam Magazine)
Referred to by Steve Lavin as the "Energizer bunny," Horne was a little bit of everything. He could shoot, he could dunk, he could defend. What more could you ask for in a player? When Anthony Mason Jr. went down for the season just three games into the year in 2008, Horne picked up the slack impressively, becoming the team's leading scorer while holding on to his starting job through the following season. Horne was benched at the beginning of his senior campaign, but ultimately won the shooting guard position back as Dwight Hardy blossomed into one of the Big East's best point guards.

Paris' Defining Moment: "Air Horne" was inhaling a different kind of air on January 24, 2009 against Rutgers. Paris was seemingly perfect that night, going 12-of-13 from the field on the way to a career-high 27 points in the Johnnies' 70-59 victory over the Scarlet Knights at Madison Square Garden. Also considered was Horne's 23-point effort against Georgetown in the Big East tournament later that year.

No. 1, D.J. Kennedy (Photo courtesy of New York Post)
"The Hitman" (credit Keith Arias for that one on color commentary when he and I called the St. John's-Howard game on WSJU back on November 22, 2008) went from a freshman with a lot of potential to the heart and soul of St. John's basketball before his senior season was prematurely cut short by a torn ACL, an injury that provided the "#DoItForDJ" hashtag created on Twitter by teammate Sean Evans and spread throughout Johnny Nation by superfan Bill Brusca. Kennedy was another player that could seemingly do it all, from his ability to burn you inside and outside to his sixth sense when it came to rebounding and tracking down a loose ball.

D.J.'s Defining Moment: Honestly, there are too many to mention; but we'll go with March 5, 2010. Kennedy provided a career-high 32 points and seven three-pointers on the road as St. John's needed triple overtime to defeat DePaul in the same building where Bret Hart made "Stone Cold" Steve Austin pass out from the sharpshooter at WrestleMania 13 in 1997, providing us with a past and present look at "The Hitman."

No. 55, Rob Thomas (Photo courtesy of The East Coast Bias)
The man who shares his name with the Matchbox 20 frontman was the human interest story before (and even after) Kevin Clark. Overcoming learning disabilities to play Division I basketball, Thomas added a new title to his resume as the team's "student assistant" last year after being one of Norm Roberts' top reserves in his sophomore season, making his first career start as a replacement for Justin Burrell in the Holiday Festival.

Rob's Defining Moment: March 3, 2009. The final regular season home game for the Red Storm was one that went to overtime the week before Georgetown sought redemption in the Big East tournament. Thomas' two free throws were the deciding factor in the extra session as the Johnnies eked out the 59-56 win that damaged the Hoyas' NCAA Tournament dreams.

Head Coach Steve Lavin (Photo courtesy of New York Daily News)
The savior, the king of Queens, the man who provided a match made in heaven after returning triumphantly to the sidelines after seven years as a color commentator and studio analyst "barnstorming the country" (in his own words) with Brent Musburger on ESPN. Revered by certain members of the Daly Dose fan base as much as Mariano Rivera and Eli Manning, Lavin's fierce coaching style, affable charm, and propensity for quotes that will last a lifetime made just as much of an impact as his fashion statements down the stretch last year. The coach simply credited "putting hammer to rock" as the reason behind his team's newfound success, and Johnny fans will hope the hammer hasn't rusted over the summer as the youngest squad in program history looks to replicate last season's miracle.

Lav's Defining Moment: His speech during a timeout in the aforementioned Pittsburgh game back on February 19th. "Win one for the Gipper" has nothing on this call to action imparted by Lavin on his young players as the Johnnies came back to provide yet another magic moment:

"This is Madison Square Garden! You've got this place electrified. You're playing with your best friends, and you're playing at Madison Square Garden. This is fun! It's about enjoying this moment, and playing with passion."
- Steve Lavin during a second-half timeout, St. John's vs. Pittsburgh, February 19, 2011

Lavin said at his introductory press conference that with the reception he received, "you can't help but feel that you do belong." Not only does he belong, he has already returned to the game of college basketball bigger and better than ever before; a hero to fans of one of the most illustrious programs in the game.


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