NEW YORK -- It made sense that St. John's best regular season in more than a decade was capped with a Senior Night unlike any most people had ever seen.
On a night 10 seniors were honored in a pregame ceremony that was long enough to almost have its own media timeout, No. 15 St. John's beat South Florida 72-56 on Saturday, a successful cap to the class' only successful season.
"It was touching for us because the fans stuck with us for four years and the first three were rough for us and them," Malik Boothe said. "For us to have a season like we're having is something we and they deserve."
The Red Storm (20-10, 12-6) finished in a three-way tie for third place in the Big East. The best they managed over the first three seasons was a 17-16 overall mark as juniors and a 6-12 league record as sophomores and juniors.
The compiling of a 44-53 mark entering their senior season cost coach Norm Roberts his job. Enter Steve Lavin, the former UCLA coach who was an ESPN analyst for the last seven years.
After a rough start, the Red Storm responded in a way that captured New York City's attention for the first time since their last 20-win season in 2002-03, a year after their last NCAA tournament appearance.
"This season, the `Journey with the Johnnies' in our inaugural season as staff, was really a pleasure, an honor, a privilege just to participate in it, to experience the breakthrough and thrill at the success at a very high level," Lavin said. "Twenty wins is always a nice benchmark. To finish third in the Big East when it's the best conference in America and possibly the best season in the history of the conference.
"This is all so unusual because it was the first time as far we know that a school had 10 seniors. The mathematical improbability is staggering. We're talking unicorns and Haley's Comet."
D.J. Kennedy scored 16 points for St. John's, which had a six-game winning streak snapped Thursday in an 84-70 loss at Seton Hall, a game that saw Lavin ejected with 1:55 left and forward Justin Burrell get tossed for a flagrant foul with 7.6 seconds left.
No such drama in the final home game for St. John's senior class.
The Red Storm finished in a tie for third place with Louisville and Syracuse. Through the three-team tiebreaker, St. John's will be the fifth seed and will get a bye into the second round of the Big East tournament on Wednesday, facing the winner of the first-round game between Seton Hall and Rutgers.
Regular-season champion Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, Louisville and Syracuse will be seeds 1 through 4 and will get double-byes into Thursday's quarterfinals.
"Normally 20 wins means a chance at the tournament and that's something we wanted when we were recruited here," Boothe said. "That's special for this group to rebuild the way we did."
The team did make postseason appearances the last two seasons after going 1-1 in the Big East tournament. The Red Storm lost in the first round of the CBI Classic in 2009 and the NIT last season.
"This is just a great moment for us since we've battled through ups and downs," Paris Horne said. "Add in Coach (Roberts) leaving and this all made our season very special. All of us together feel like brothers and now we're winners."
Maybe it made sense the Red Storm struggled with closing games against non-ranked teams from the conference. St. John's has six wins this season over teams ranked 13th or higher in the Top 25, all except a win over Duke coming in conference games.
"We had to push all the emotions to the side," Sean Evans said. "We had to separate the two and once we did, we did all right. We really can't celebrate now because there's a lot more ahead of us."
Augustus Gilchrist had 16 points and Shaun Noriega added 14 for the Bulls (9-21, 3-14), who have lost eight of nine and will be the 15th seed in the 16-team conference, opening against Villanova on Tuesday.
"We played well in the first half. We did the things we wanted to do. We executed well. We did a good job in having ball movement, spacing and really getting shots and attacking their defense," South Florida coach Stan Heath said. "In the second half, a good team like St. John's, they're going to make runs. I thought we held off the initial part of that run well."
Seton Hall went 12 of 18 from 3-point range in the upset win in New Jersey, but the Red Storm's perimeter defense was a lot tougher against South Florida as the Bulls went 3 for 13 from long range.
South Florida shot 52.2 percent from the field in taking a 32-30 halftime lead. The Bulls were just 7 of 23 from the field in the second half, missing all four 3-point attempts.
The sellout crowd of 5,602 at on-campus Carnesecca Arena greeted the huge senior class with standing ovation after standing ovation in the pregame ceremonies. It took a while for the crowd to get rowdy as South Florida hung tough until midway through the second half.
Jarrid Famous' reverse layup gave the Bulls a 47-44 lead with 9:36 to play.
Brownlee's three-point play with 9:15 left started the 13-2 run that gave St. John's command of the game and finally had the crowd enjoying the last home game of Lavin's first season.
Horne and Hardy both hits 3s before Hugh Robertson broke the Red Storm's run with a layup. Hardy scored on a drive and missed the free throw that could have made it a three-point play, but Horne crashed the backboard and tipped in the miss to make it 57-49 with 6:41 to go.
Kevin Clark, the senior who saw the least playing time of any of his classmates this season, made things exciting in the final seconds as he missed four shots, the last three after his teammates managed to rebound the miss and get it back to him. He missed one last shot at the buzzer.
"Man, he does shoot a lot," Evans said, trying to keep a straight face. "Really, he's a good shooter."
St. John's is 6-1 against South Florida, including 5-0 since the Bulls joined the Big East in 2005-06.
There's nowhere to go but up for the Eagles, who were winless in the ACC last season but return a slew of young players who gained valuable experience.
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