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Hardy handles UConn

St. John’s gets a résumé-building win over UConn at Madison Square Garden.

In various parts of the Bronx, those not aware may have suddenly received phone calls or text messages with the following message – “Are you seeing what Dwight Hardy is doing?"

Elsewhere in the metropolitan area, basketball fans with other commitments and unaware of the events at the Garden might have received messages inquiring if they knew what St. John's was doing.

Anyone not tuned in or picking up the action late missed an incredible individual performance by Hardy, who scored a career-high 33 points and led an outstanding team display by St. John’s, which continued improving its resume with an 89-72 victory over the ninth-ranked Huskies.

Hardy was in one of those zones, especially during a span of 3:59 minutes in the early stages of the second half that doubled a 12-point lead. During that period, he scored 12 straight points – including one with a defender racing towards him and sticking a hand in his face that forced UConn to call a timeout with 12:55 remaining.

“I was just in a zone and when I’m in the zone I just kind of blackout,” Hardy said after tying his career high with five three-pointers. “I don’t know how to describe it, but I just feel like the basket gets bigger and bigger.

“The defender had his hand sticking out and I tried to draw the foul, unfortunately I didn’t get it, but I stayed with my shot and when it went in, I just knew I was in one of those zones.

The last points of Hardy’s binge sent the Red Storm towards their fourth win over a top-25 team – all at the Garden – and enhanced an RPI that was 22 before the opening tap. It is the most wins over top-25 opponents for the program since accumulating six wins during the 1999-2000 season, which included beating Syracuse, Connecticut and Duke in a span of one week in late-February.

“It just felt great to get another big win to help our resume,” D.J. Kennedy said. “We appreciate all the fans who came out and supported us. There’s something about the Garden this year; when we play in front of those fans, we put on a show.”

The latest show came five days after a tough loss in UCLA and during Hardy’s dazzling stretch it even forced Coach Steve Lavin to step back and appreciate it from a fan’s perspective. As the pro-St. John’s crowd saluted Hardy, he said to the former JFK High School standout, “man you are torching the nets”.

“There are those few moments, they don’t happen very often, when you are able—even when you’re a coach—to step back and take a deep breath and kind of enjoy as a fan what transpired,” Lavin said.

As much as Hardy’s binge keyed St. John’s first regular-season victory over the Huskies since 2002, other elements stood out that made this win similar to the Duke victory on Jan. 30.

The Red Storm did not let one of the nation’s best players affect them as they kept Kemba Walker to a quiet 15 points. Walker spurned St. John’s after starring at Rice High School to attend UConn and had enjoyed some memorable showings at MSG but last night was not one of them.

Walker misfired on 12 of 16 shots, including one jumper that glanced off the side of the backboard in front of the UConn bench.

Besides keeping Walker quiet, the matchup zone and interior game also shined. The pressing defense resulted in 27 fast-break points and St. John’s won the rebounding margin (43-33) by double digits for the third time, an effort that was spearheaded by Kennedy’s 11 boards.

“To be plus-10 on the boards means that we were holding them to one shot,” Lavin said. And it also means we were getting a lot of fast break opportunities because the rebound starts the break.”

Hardy’s show was not the only show-stopping event for St. John’s. After withstanding a Huskies charge late in the first half, Sean Evans stripped Roscoe Smith fed Malik Boothe, who broke past two defenders and sent in a 35-foot buzzer-beating three-pointer that put the Red Storm ahead 35-31.

UConn coach Jim Calhoun drew a technical for contesting that Boothe traveled but the shot was only a preview of things to come during the second half and when those impressive final 20 minutes ended, the focus turned towards the latest installment of the biggest game of the season, which occurs Sunday afternoon at Cincinnati, which eked out a two-point win in Jamaica on Jan. 22.

That is what it takes in the Big East and it is what St. John’s is willing to do reach the goal of making its’ first NCAA tournament in nine years.

“From the very first time we met as a team, our goal was to make the NCAA tournament,” Lavin said. “I think you need a dream, something you aspire to, a goal. Then you start putting the hammer to the rock and putting in the work of getting there.”

What went right ...

1. Hardy won the Battle of the Bronx

Though coaches don’t regard games as 1-on-1 battles, parts of the Bronx might have considered the matchup between Dwight Hardy and Kemba Walker as a major subplot in St. John’s 89-72 win. Hardy, who starred at JFK High in Marble Hill, finished with a career-high 33 points, putting his stamp on the blowout with 12 straight points in the second half. Walker finished with 15 points, shot 4-for-15 and at one point saw one his jumpers hit the side of the backboard.

2. SJU built up their tournament résumé
Before beating Duke, St. John’s had an RPI of 28. Since then, it has improved to 22. After last night’s rout, that number figures to get lower — and possibly crack the Top 20 in RPI ratings ... especially since this was the Red Storm’s fourth win over a Top 25 team — the most since accumulating six in 1999-2000.

3. Their defense led to offense
Good defense often leads to big plays on the other end, and the final play of the first half was out of that textbook. After Malik Boothe stripped Roscoe Smith, the 5-foot-9 guard broke free of two defenders and banked in a ‘3’ at the buzzer.

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