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No heroics needed for Red Storm

It was another big night for Dwight Hardy, whose 21 points gave him his 11th 20-point game of his career.

St. John’s 76, DePaul 51

The distance between pro basketball and big-time college basketball in New York is a 15-minute local bus trip followed by a 30-minute subway trip.

It just happened that last night both teams were playing hyped up games for differing reasons.

While the Knicks were beginning the Carmelo Anthony era in midtown-Manhattan, St. John’s was making a debut of sorts by playing its first game as a top 25 team in a little over a decade.

In front of a sold-out crowd that filled to the rafters, the 25th-ranked Red Storm did not disappoint, cruising to a 76-51 rout of DePaul last night that proved they are not playing around anymore.

The biggest piece of evidence that St. John’s (18-9, 10-5) had no intentions of falling into a trap or barely escaping one occurred late in the first half. That was when Dwight Hardy hit a three-pointer that concluded a 12-0 run and put the Red Storm up by 19 with a little over three minutes remaining.

“The team answered the bell in terms of the challenge of sustaining the level of play we’ve had in this stretch of eight games,” Coach Steve Lavin said. “We were able to build a comfortable lead and salt it away down the stretch.”

“We know how important each game is,” D.J. Kennedy added. “In past years, we had letdowns in games like this. Not this team this year.”

And definitely not this month, though they barely escaped a letdown three weeks ago against Rutgers just three days after beating Duke. The signs this would not need any late-game dramatics appeared early on both ends.

The zone defense that DePaul coach Oliver Purnell said was the best his team had faced all year swarmed early and often. St. John’s never was in serious jeopardy of a letdown, leading by as many as 30 in the second half and using the final 20 minutes to display its dunking abilities.

That meant there were no mental miscues, no lengthy scoring droughts and an enjoyable night for a sellout crowd that enjoyed watching the Red Storm win for the seventh time in eight games.

“We can win every game if we come out and play like we did tonight,” Hardy said, “and there’s no reason why we can’t.”

If the Red Storm plays like this in their final three games, not only can they win every game but could have a chance to claim one of the double-byes in the upcoming Big East tournament.

“That would be big for the rest,” Kennedy said. “Let the other teams beat up on each other and we’ll have the winners. We’ll come out with more energy and more rest. In the Big East, that’s key to get your rest. Because when you play those early games, it’s hard to win. It’s four or five games straight. That’s really tough do in the Big East.”

A month ago after a disappointing home loss to Cincinnati and a blowout loss at Georgetown, it did not seem possible but now anything is.

“This is an example of a team developing a hard edge and maturity that will bode well for us coming down the homestretch into the postseason,” Lavin said, “In a challenge like tonight we had to sustain a level of focus, effort and execution for the entire game. This was the biggest game of the year because there is a natural tendency of human nature to exhale and find distractions when you hit some benchmarks like the Top 25.”

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