We...are...St. John's. We...are...St. John's.
The Redmen's mascot shook his headdress while sounding his war chant, and the students in the Madison Square Garden seats, responding in kind, wore their faces painted up in horrid graffiti that resembled, somebody said, "New York subway cars." The Redmen's star players, Billy Goodwin and Chris Mullin, Ebony and Ivory themselves, lofted their balloons over the zones, while their craggy little antistar coach, Lou Carnesecca, skidded on his knees and blew kisses to the crowd. What other team could possibly wake up in the city that doesn't sleep and find itself king of the hill, lord of the Garden and on top of the Big East heap? Drums along the Hudson. We...are...St. John's!
Anyone on hand for Carnesecca's rambling discourses on such diverse topics as Italian violinists, Portuguese wines and circus logistics—"For chrissake, this is where they bring the elephants," he said one day upon entering the Garden's interview area—not to mention the Redmen's three impressive get-back whippings of folks who had previously beaten them (Pittsburgh, Villanova and Boston College) might well have concluded that the Garden, the tournament and the entire surrounding metropolitan area as well were St. John's.
And why not? The campus sits hard by the Grand Central Parkway, just beneath the airport flight patterns in charming Queens. Goodwin lives in the Bronx, two blocks from the famous zoo, and Mullin hails from Flatbush, Brooklyn. Little Looie himself grew up over a delicatessen on the West Side of Manhattan. And the team commuted to the Garden every day from a suburban hotel in Glen Cove, Longuyland. That just about covers the waterfront.
Putting as much sincerity as possible into his tiny, street-sly smile, Carnesecca kept insisting that St. John's had no home-court advantage in the Big East tournament. But by the Saturday tournament finale the conference's alleged chalk, Villanova, was gone; the league's most dominant center, Georgetown's Patrick Ewing, was long gone; and only the underrated overachievers from Boston College, who had tied St. John's and Villanova for the regular-season Big East title, were left to challenge the drums and the war paint and the non-home team.
After St. John's won the championship game rather routinely 85-77, with Mullin, a 6'6" sophomore, and Goodwin, a 6'5" senior, mixing and matching for 43 points, the Redmen owned 27 victories—a school record—and Carnesecca finally ditched the con.
"It's not just that we won. It's that we won the thing here," he croaked in that Don Corleone rasp of his. He spread his arms to the 19,591 seats that had been sold out for every session. "To win it in this place—ah, that is something very special."
The Redmen themselves were never more special than in the second half of their semifinal game against Villanova on Friday night. Every St. John's starter had missed the basket (seven shots in all) as the Wildcats had taken a 12-0 lead. A few minutes before the end of a half in which Mullin and Goodwin had combined to shoot three for 15 from the floor, they had stood side by side at midcourt exchanging furtive smiles and nonsensical chatter.
"Actually, we were talking fast so that we could avoid looking at the coach," said Goodwin, whose team trailed 39-29 at the half. "You ask yourself can it get any worse and you think, yeah, if we keep playing like this."
But the Redmen didn't. At least after they missed their first three shots to begin the second half, they didn't. Then David Russell, a 6'7" senior leaper who had gone scoreless in the first 20 minutes, finally connected from the baseline to make the score 39-31. A few minutes later, following Villanova Point Guard Gary McLain's three-point play that gave the Wildcats a 46-39 lead, St. John's struck back for 12 straight points, including three baskets by Mullin. Next the Redman outscored Villanova 17-12, getting nine straight points from Goodwin. With 5:07 left the Redmen led 68-58, and Mullin, Goodwin and Russell had scored all 29 of St. John's points in the turnaround. By then the game was all but over because the Big East 45-second clock goes off at the five-minute mark and the Redmen are a splendid free-throw shooting team (77.4%, second in the NCAA going into the conference tournament).