Perhaps it was ironic that St. John's and Boston College chose opposite escape hatches to victory tonight at Madison Square Garden.

Ironic, because both teams ended up in the same treasured place: the Big East Conference tournament championship game.

St. John's earned entrance tonight with a 91-80 victory over Villanova. Later this evening, Boston College earned entrance with an 80-74 victory over Syracuse.

So Saturday at 3 p.m., these teams will seek the conference holy grail: the Big East's one automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. "Let's see," said Boston College Coach Gary Williams, his high-intensity furnace of a personality still aglow in the press room late this evening, "we still have 15 more hours to get ready." And off into the evening he went.

The similarity tonight between the two finalists ends at victory. When danger confronted St. John's (26-4)--this, in the form of a a horrid first-half shooting exhibit and a 10-point halftime deficit to Villanova (22-7)--the Redmen turned towards their strengths: a fast break and a passing game.

Consequently, the Redmen sizzled away at 67 percent from the field in the second half (doubling their first-half shooting); outscored formerly competent Villanova, 62-41; and watched in wonderment as guard Chris Mullin scored 25 of his game-high 29 points and forward Billy Goodwin scored 19 of his 23 points in the second half.

"Anything in the world a coach would want, we did in the second half," St. John's Coach Lou Carnesecca said. "The first half--Aayyeee!--that was a nightmare."

"The way we played in the first half, we didn't know what would happen in the second half," said Goodwin, who made two of 10 shots in the first half, six of 10 in the second. "We asked ourselves 'Could it get worse?' We said, 'Yeah, the same thing could happen again in the second half.' "

"In the first half we took bad shots," said Mullin, who made one of five shots in the first half, eight of 11 in the second. "In the second half, we started passing the ball around more."

Villanova, paced by senior guard Stewart Granger's 24 points, led, 12-0, at the outset, then 39-29 at halftime. This upswing came about primarily because Granger led a fast-break offense to rip-roaring perfection and a 70-percent field goal percentage and because a multitude of different zone defenses kept St. John's in a panic.

Then came the second half. The Wildcats became Pussycats. The fast break slowed, the shooting slumped to 43 percent. Villanova did manage to get the ball inside to brutish center John Pinone consistently, but Pinone made only three of 13 shots from the field, scoring 15 points.

Meanwhile, St. John's was running. Running, that is, a fast break and running up the points as well. Goodwin then scored 13 points on a variety of jumpers and drives through the lane in a 21-10 St. John's binge.

This streak reversed a 46-45 Redmen deficit with 14:12 remaining, into a 66-56 Redmen lead with 5:42 left. And that was that.

"Obviously, these were two very different halves," said Villanova Coach Rollie Massimino. "Once they got it going and went ahead (in the second half), we got passive."

In the second game, Boston College (24-5) reacted differently than St. John's when confronted by danger--this, in the form of two previous losses to Syracuse (20-9), one by 17 points, the other by 20 points.

The Eagles chose, oddly enough, to turn away from their strength--a full-court press.

And chose, instead, to turn towards a more deliberate pace, a drop-back 1-2-2 zone defense and guard Michael Adams (25 points) and forward Jay Murphy (23 points).

It worked, too. Boston College led, 35-34, at halftime. Over the first five minutes of the second half came five lead changes.

Then, midway through the second half, Murphy hit two crucial three-point plays in a matter of three BC possessions, the second triad giving the top-seeded Eagles a 56-50 lead with 7:39 to play. Syracuse place its faith in forward Leo Rautins (22 points) and a full-court press over these final minutes.

But Adams, the 5-foot-8 fidget guard, hit several jumpers and BC made 21 of 24 free throws in the second half. Over.

"It did seem strange not pressing tonight," Adams said, "because I like running all over the court."

"I think you should go with the same style you play all year," said Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim, "unless you get beat twice by 20."

"Sure there was apprehension about playing Syracuse," said Williams, a former American University coach. "They beat us twice. Badly. That's why we wanted to go against our set 'D.' "

Boeheim admitted that the lustre of Thursday night's 79-72 victory over Georgetown became the lacklustre tonight. He said, "We had to go all out last night. I don't want to make an excuse, but we left some of ourselves out there on the court last night."