St. John's and its effervescent coach of 17 years, Lou Carnesecca, got their hard-earned reward today. That is, if you consider playing Georgetown a reward.
St. John's, which lost twice to top-ranked Georgetown in the last month by a total of 29 points, earned the NCAA national semifinal berth against the Hoyas by pushing aside North Carolina State, 69-60, in the West Regional title game before 17,022 at McNichols Sports Arena.
St. John's (31-3) and Georgetown (34-2) will play Saturday afternoon. Memphis State (31-3) takes on Villanova (23-10) in the other semifinal game. The winners will play for the national championship Monday. With all but Memphis State members of the Big East Conference, it marks the first time one league has sent as many as three schools to the Final Four.
The top-seeded team here, St. John's won today because it was successful in four areas. First, the Redmen's top three players -- Chris Mullin (25 points, five rebounds, three steals), Walter Berry (19 points, five rebounds) and Bill Wennington (14 points, 10 rebounds) -- all played very well; second, the Redmen made 25 of 31 free throws, eight in the final 2:17 after State had pulled within four points; third, St. John's controlled the Wolfpack's inside game, limiting Lorenzo Charles (15 points, 11 rebounds) to two free throws in the final 8 1/2 minutes, and finally, holding the Wolfpack's back court to eight-for-24 shooting.
"They responded to everything we threw at them," State Coach Jim Valvano said. "They did a good job on Lorenzo, sending three guys to him when we got it inside. We weren't making our outside shots so they were able to sag on him. They did what they had to do, in particular hit those free throws."
The game did have some drama. Mullin drew his fourth personal foul after fouling Charles with 5:07 to play. The 6-foot-7 senior sank both shots and the Wolfpack trailed, 56-50. Seconds later, State's Bennie Bolton was called for a block against Mullin, who tried to drive along the base line. It was a play that easily could have been called a charge. So, instead of being down six points and Mullin out with five fouls, Mullin hit two free throws and the lead was eight points.
Carnesecca said he never considered taking Mullin out.
"How can he score, pass or rebound if he's sitting on the bench? You go with your best," Carnesecca said. "There's no tomorrow. You always go with your best."
With 2:31 to play, State (23-10) got within four points, 59-55, after Spud Webb (14 points, nine assists) made a three-point play, the basket coming on Berry's goal tending.
But the Wolfpack just didn't have the firepower to get any closer. St. John's reserve forward Ron Stewart, who just seconds before Webb's play suffered the embarrassment of shooting an air ball on a free throw, was fouled intentionally by Ernie Myers. This time, Stewart went to the line, sank both shots, grinned broadly and pointed toward the jeering Wolfpack as he raced back on defense.
"I wasn't going to take him out after that air ball, and it was no hunch," Carnesecca said. "Ron's a senior and he's been there before."
After point guard Mike Moses made two foul shots to boost the Redmen's advantage to eight points, Stewart went back to the line and made two more and St. John's was up by 65-55 with 1:22 to play.
Webb twice drove past statuesque defenders for easy layups to cut the deficit to six with 57 seconds left. State, the NCAA champion in 1983 thanks to a last-second follow-up dunk by Charles, may have figured it had another miracle left.
With 52 seconds to play, Moses missed the front end of a one-and-one but Berry tipped the ball to Moses. Moses got a nice pass from Mark Stewart inside and headed in for an apparent layup. But Charles came from nowhere to swat the ball toward midcourt and State had a chance to get within four again.
Webb was fouled, but made only one of two shots. Wennington rebounded and sent the outlet pass to Moses. His pass was right on target to Berry, whose dunk gave St. John's a 67-60 lead with 23 seconds left.
"After 1,000 games, I'm very much elated to be going to the Final Four. When I'm going to my grave, this I'll remember," Carnesecca said. "At halftime, we looked at two things -- they outshot us from the line (12-4) and outrebounded us (20-17). We reversed both of those figures in the second half. No big strategy -- we used the same defenses we've used 30 years. When the clock finally got to five seconds left, I looked up and said, 'We're going, we're going (to the Final Four).' "
Mullin, who at one point was being covered by the 5-7 Webb and had five quick points enabling the Redmen to increase a three-point lead to 56-48, said he wanted the ball down deep but couldn't get it.
"It was harder than I thought," Mullin said. "For his size, Webb can be tough."
State looked rather shaky at the start, missing three quick shots and committing two turnovers. As a result, the Redmen gained a 6-0 advantage.
Stopping Mullin from scoring from the perimeter and Berry from dominating inside were priorities for State. The Wolfpack tried a little of everything early -- a straight man defense, a box-and-one on Mullin, a sagging zone, a matchup zone, you name it.
While St. John's was trying to figure out what was what, State ran off nine straight points to go up, 12-8, with 15:28 to play. But the Redmen were using tricks of their own on defense.
State's leading scorer, Charles, tried to get position down low and the Redmen simply sagged around him and he didn't attempt a shot until the half was 10 minutes old.
Without Charles' point contribution (five at halftime), State looked elsewhere. Cozell McQueen, limited to four points before fouling out in the Wolfpack's 61-55 semifinal victory over Alabama, hurt St. John's. He had three free throws and a follow-up basket that cut St. John's lead to 24-23. McQueen's layup came after Webb leaped high over a crowd of players and swatted a missed shot out of the reach of St. John's rebounders.
St. John's went more than five minutes without scoring, but cold-shooting State (10 for 27) could manage only two baskets. After McQueen's basket, Wennington sank two free throws, Mullin drilled a jumper from 18 feet and Berry somehow twisted his lanky body sideways to hit a base line jumper over a perplexed McQueen as the Redmen went up, 30-23, with 2:20 left in the half.
State then scored six straight points, including an alley-oop from Webb to Charles at the buzzer that ended the half.
St. John's outscored N.C. State, 7-2, at the beginning of the second half. State never caught up.
As for looking ahead to play the Hoyas, Carnesecca said, "They are not an unknown quantity. It took me 35 years to get here, ask me about Georgetown tomorrow. I'll even answer my phone if you want me to."