Streaking Georgetown swept past St. John's so impressively tonight that the losing coach, unsolicited, called the Hoyas a national title contender.

Lou Carnesecca had nothing but praise after watching Craig Shelton dissect his team inside in a 76-66 thumping in the semifinals of the first Big East Conference tournament. The margin of defeat could have been worse but the Hoyas missed 13 second-half free throws.

Syracuse, ranked second and third in the wire-service polls and a team Georgetown beat 2 1/2 weeks ago, also won decisively, routing Connecticut, 92-61, to set up a 3 p.m. rematch (WRC-TV-4) for the league championship and No. 1 or 2 seeding in the NCAA East Regional.

The NCAA seedings and draw will be announced Sunday afternoon.

"They're the hottest team going right now," Carnesecca said after Georgetown's 12th straight victory reversed an earlier 71-69 loss to the Redmen and improved Georgetown's record to 23-5.

"I think they have the potential to go to the (NCAA) Final Four. They're got all the ingredients. They're deep, plus the experience. They beat Maryland (without Buck Williams) and played Indiana to a seven-point game there. And don't forget, we didn't lie down against them tonight."

As one conference official put it, tonight's opener at the Providence Civic Center was "the first real Big East game" of the tournament.St. John's (24-4) had been playing inconsistently for the last three weeks. Tonight, the Redmen hustled and scrapped, but to no avail.

As they did in the first meeting, the Hoyas jumped to a big lead, 28-14. And as happedned in the first game, St. John's came storming back as the Hoyas became tentative and perhaps too conservative.

But this time, in the final two minutes of the first half and in the opening two minutes of the second after Coach John Thompson chewed out Shelton and his teammates at halftime, Georgetown scored 11 straight points.

That made the Hoya lead 46-32 and the game was all but over.

The Hoyas played like a team that knows it's better than its No. 20 national ranking. They spread the floor, worked the ball inside and, in the final 10 minutes, successfully played keepaway from the Redmen, despite missing so many free throws.

Shelton, at first disheartened after collecting two first-half fouls and sitting out the final 7:32, scored 17 of his 21 points, got star St. John's defensive forward Frank Gilroy quickly into foul trouble and showed the crowd of 11.223 that he is the key to this team.

In the postgame press conference, Shelton was asked about his second-half play.

Thompson, interrupting before Shelton could reply, answered: "I cursed him out at halftime."

Afterward, in the locker room, Shelton said that his coach, despite the Hoyas holding a 39-32 advantage at the time, had cursed out the entire team at halftime, not only his star forward.

"He just got on me and all of us, so we didn't have a mental lapse the second half," Shelton said.

"I put a little pressure on Craig at halftime," Thompson confessed. "I told him he's too good a player to get down on himself like that. I said it a little stronger.

"You can't be too pleased when things are going well. You've got to be angry or complacency will set in. When we're down and playing poorly, I don't get angry. I told him, 'Don't play cautiously. We're as good as St. John's.'"

David Russell, the freshman centerforward, again entered the game to rally the Redmen. He scored 11 of 15 points in one first-half stretch that brought St. John's back into contention.

But he was not in the game in those four crucial minutes. He left at the end of the first half, after Floyd, trying to stop a fast break, grabbed the ball and Russell's arm and the 6-foot-6 New Yorker fell to the court hard and left the game.

Ron Plair made one of two free throws in Russell's place, making the score 35-32. Then Georgetown ran off the 11 straight points, Ed Spriggs making a layup off a nifty Al Dutch pass and John Duren, superbly directing the team, sinking a 20-footer as time expired in the half.

At the start of the second half, Duren hit a short jumper, Shelton followed with a three-point play aided by Floyd's pass and Floyd, who scored 20 points, added two free throws.

That made it 46-32 and Georgetown made short jumpers -- the longest was a six-footer by Shelton -- and layups the rest of the way. A Shelton layup made it 65-52 with 6:40 left and the Hoyas did not try another field goal until Shelton made a layup with three seconds to play.

"They controlled the tempo," said St. John's guard Reggie Carter, hero of the earlier St. John's win over Georgetown. "With the lead they had it was effective. It was impossible to get the ball. A lot of teams can't hold the ball that long without turning it over or taking a bad shot. They can."

So now Georgetown plays Syracuse, which had a first-round bye. The Hoyas have had 20 minutes of "garbage time" the opening two nights and Thompson does not believe fatigue will be a factor.

"If we lose it won't be because of that," he said.

But the Hoyas are not thinking about losing. As Spriggs put it, "We controlled the tempo tonight. We went to the boards well. If we keep it up, we ought to take it all home.'

He was asked if that meant the Big East or NCAA title.