The slogan “Do It for DJ”— injured senior D.J. Kennedy, unable to participate due to a torn ACL —was supposed to serve as an inspiration for St. John’s.
But during most of St. John’s first NCAA tournament appearance in nine years, any inspiration derived from Kennedy’s absence could not mask the reality that saw Gonzaga dissect the Red Storm defense and dominate the glass in an 86-71 first-round victory.
“(It’s) more than just the rebounding with D.J.,” Coach Steve Lavin said. “It’s his experience, his versatility, the fact that he’s a crunch time performer. Late clock, late game situations, he’s someone we can play through.
“We’re missing that component offensively and we’re missing him at both ends of the boards at the rim. His poise, play-making ability, across the board, he was a key part of our success. We wouldn’t have been here without D.J. Kennedy.”
The Red Storm were pinned in early after Gonzaga raced off 12 straight points in a 3 ½minute stretch and when big men hit foul trouble, that also proved to be too much of a burden to overcome.
Dwight Hardy did what he could in scoring 26 points on 10-of-23 shooting but he did not score until the deficit was 13 and often found defenders swarming in his direction.
“We are crying right now,” Hardy said. “But on the other side we can always look back and say that we had a chance to do something special our senior year and we made it to the NCAA tournament. Nobody probably thought we would make it here.”
Something even more special than beating Gonzaga would have been beating third-seeded BYU. Instead of figuring out ways to stop Jimmer Fredette, the Red Storm will return to Jamaica wondering went wrong on a trip that was the conclusion of a four-year wait for the 10 seniors, who a year ago lost on a last-second shot at Memphis in the NIT.
Whenever the Red Storm review the end of an otherwise terrific resurgence, they will find themselves most frustrated at defensive deficiency that allowed Gonzaga to shoot 54 percent and lack of rebounding that enabled the Zags to win the rebounding battle in a 43-20 rout.
In the end it was not meant to be for St. John’s, which also lost to Gonzaga in the second round of the 2000 tournament. A decade ago, the Red Storm was the second seed and the six-point loss was considered a significant upset.
While technically this was an upset, it might not have been when weighing factors such as NCAA experience.
While the only person associated with St. John’s to appear in the tournament was Lavin, this was the 13th straight appearance for the Zags and their experience showed every time they broke through the defense and leapt for a rebound.
“We talked at length this week in preparation for the game about their depth, size, length, and skill, which was the best of any team that we had seen on film,” Lavin said. “Then it played itself out today.”
Regardless of how the final 40 minutes unfolded, college basketball returned in a big way to Queens, where on October 15 a well-publicized recruiting class will take the court in Jamaica in place of the 10 seniors, whose mesmerizing winter filled with victories over Duke, Pittsburgh and Connecticut set the foundation and will never be forgotten by St. John’s fans.
“I really wanted the team, the players, to be aware, while it doesn’t take the sting away from this loss, they set the bar high for anyone that follows,” Lavin said. “This young group coming in next year will be the youngest team in the country, youngest team in St. John’s history.
“They have lofty standards now to live up to because of this group of 10 seniors that put the foundation in the place for the future of our program. They gave our coaching staff the ride of a lifetime.”
And because of that, October 15 can’t come soon enough for the St. John’s men’s basketball program.