St. John's stock, which took a nose dive after two recent losses to Georgetown, is beginning to rise again, especially after today's 68-65 victory over Arkansas in the second round of the NCAA West Regional.
After the intense defensive game, in which St. John's took a calculated risk by sagging most of its defense around Arkansas center Joe Kleine, losing Coach Eddie Sutton said:
"St. John's is one of the two or three best teams in college basketball. I thought our team competed hard, and against most teams in the NCAA field, it probably would have been good enough to win."
It may be that St. John's is Chris Evert Lloyd to college basketball's Martina Navratilova. But the Redmen (30-3), top seeded in the West, are going to Denver to play Kentucky in the national round of 16 Friday night because they had the patience and the talent to overcome Arkansas' wonderful, dogged defense, especially near the end when Arkansas had closed to 62-61.
Mike Moses, who just had missed the front end of a one-and-one, made two free throws, Bill Wennington blocked a shot by William Mills and Chris Mullin (26 points) hit two free throws to make it 66-61 with 36 seconds to play.
So the Redmen could look ahead to joining the crowd of 9,226 in the Special Events Center seats and, as it turned out, watch Kentucky, one of the last three at-large teams to make the field, shoot 55 percent to defeat Nevada-Las Vegas, 64-61, behind Kenny Walker's 23 points and last-minute blocked shot.
UNLV (28-4), seeded fourth in this region, was the only true Western team even to make the round of 32. With eight second-round games to be played Sunday, the westernmost team in the field is Texas-El Paso.
Despite St. John's efforts, Kleine scored 23 points, but St. John's Coach Lou Carnesecca was pleased. "We played a 'great' defensive game because they missed from the outside," Carnesecca said. "That's realistic, from the laboratory. The biggest thing was that we weren't getting in foul trouble, and they weren't getting any three-point plays."
The accumulation of bodies around Kleine -- he usually was guarded from behind by center Wennington and from the front, from the left and from the right, too -- also made it especially difficult for the Razorbacks (22-13) to get rebounds or high-percentage shots.
As power forward Charles Balentine, who had his hands full with Walter Berry (16 points, six rebounds), said: "They sagged in so tight on Joe we were forced to shoot out of our range, and the only guy hitting was Allie (Freeman, one of the Razorbacks' two freshman starting guards). We wanted to work the base line, but it was very difficult. It was very difficult to rebound. You had to climb over three people's back. It was tough to work in the paint at all."
Yet, although the Redmen led from early in the first half, they never could take control fully, because Arkansas' defense wouldn't quit. As Mullin said, "They played so hard and intense, if they're 20 points up or 10 points down, you wouldn't know it."
Four times, St. John's seemed on the verge of fully taking command. Each time, Arkansas' defense wouldn't allow it. The last time came after the Redmen led, 58-50, thanks to a 10-4 run including three nifty inside moves for baskets by Berry -- two on passes from Willie Glass, one from Mullin.
Now guards Kenny Hutchinson and Freeman, both especially quick, caused Mullin to lose the ball twice against the press. And, after Kleine's two free throws made it 62-59, Moses missed the front end of a one-and-one. Kleine answered with a soft base line jumper and it was 62-61 with 1:32 to play.
But Arkansas was in foul trouble. Freeman had fouled out and Hutchinson followed him to the bench 11 seconds later when he fouled Moses. This time Moses made both ends of the one-and-one, making it 64-61.
"The only thing I had on my mind was making the shot," Moses said. "I didn't think about the one I missed . . . The first one? I thought I had a good touch on it, but it bounced out."
At the other end, Mills (12 points on six-for-15 shooting) found a crack in the St. John's defense and was going in for an easy basket when Wennington came off Kleine and blocked the shot to Moses. The Razorbacks fouled Mullin with 36 seconds left, and he made both free throws for a 66-61 lead.
Wennington was not supposed to leave Kleine to help out, "which I was told not to do," Wennington said. "But I figured it was do or die, and I got it (the blocked shot). I knew Mike was in the area. I was just trying to hit it away from the basket and their players."
When Kleine scored again with 16 seconds to play, Arkansas fouled Moses. His two free throws made it 68-61, and St. John's had escaped without making a substitution in the second half.
"The whole game was scary," Moses said. "Every shot was magnified 100 times."
As Carnesecca said, "Even an old coach like myself, I got a little excited. I hope I can get more excited."
For Kentucky, the victory over UNLV probably put to rest any remaining doubts that the Wildcats (18-12) did not belong in the tournament. The Wildcats had a 60-52 lead with 4:46 to play, but UNLV took advantage of three turnovers, and five points by Anthony Jones made it 60-59 with 1:17 to play.
The Running Rebels regained possession and worked the ball inside to center Richie Adams (14 points, 13 rebounds). But Walker blocked the shot into the corner and then, taking a long pass from Roger Harden, scored a breakaway dunk, making it 62-59.
"We got Richie the perfect shot," UNLV Coach Jerry Tarkanian said. "No one else on the floor could have blocked it. Maybe we should have gone to the other side. It was just a great play by Walker."
Fred Banks made a 17-foot jump shot for UNLV with 14 seconds to play. Richard Madison clinched the victory for the Wildcats by making two free throws with nine seconds left.
Guards Ed Davender (13 points, four rebounds) and Harden (eight points, six assists) played strong games for Kentucky.
"I thought the key to the game was Harden's controlling of the offense and Davender . . . he played a fantastic game," Kentucky Coach Joe B. Hall said. "We never doubted for one minute thst we belonged in the tournament."
Afterward, Kentucky fans sang a rendition of "My Old Kentucky Home." And the Wildcats could be there for the Final Four, on their home court, with two more victories.