Though it did not receive a two-game bye because of its loss to Seton Hall during the regular season, St. John's still earned a place in the BIG EAST Tournament quarterfinal after defeating Rutgers, 65-63, on Wednesday at Madison Square Garden.
Though the contest was a heated one from start to finish, the most replayed sequence on every highlight reel will be when St. John's senior forward Justin Brownlee appeared to step out of bounds and walk as he tossed the game ball into the stands with 1.7 seconds remaining in the game.
"I don't know if [Brownlee] threw it in the air before he stepped out of bounds or if he stepped out of bounds and then threw it in the air," said St. John's head coach Steve Lavin. "I'm not sure what the sequence was. It was chaotic... so I was fortunate that we were going to be able to go to the locker room and get to the next round."
Regardless of the so-called non-calls and what the officials saw or didn't see, the sell-out crowd of 19,375 were in for a real treat as they witnessed a 40-minute upward battle that culminated in the contest's final minute.
After St. John's (21-10) led by as much as 10 points twice in the second half -- the last time coming at the 8:43 mark -- some plays created by Rutgers' Gilvydas Biruta (10 points, eight rebounds) and James Beatty (15 points), the Scarlet Knights brought the game within three points, 55-52, with 5:35 left in the second half.
Though the Red Storm led again by six points, 60-54, as late as the 4:06 mark, Rutgers (15-17) was able to fully recover from its deficit with 58 seconds left in the game.
Scarlet Knight guard Mike Coburn (11 points, four assists) was fouled by senior swingman Paris Horne as Coburn netted a bucket at the rack. After he completed the conventional three-point play, Rutgers held a one-point advantage -- the first time since the 17:37 mark of the first half.
With the Knights leading 61-59, the Storm had to quickly generate some points. Dwight Hardy, who led all scorers with 17 points, took advantage of the height differential between him and his defender big man Biruta and drew the foul. Hardy sank both with 37.4 seconds on the clock and slid the Johnnies ahead by a point, 62-61.
The Red Storm seemed to be all in the clear when Sean Evans, who nearly finished with a double-double (13 points, nine rebounds), drew a foul and converted both at the charity stripe. As a result, the Johnnies led 64-61 at the 18-second mark.
Still, Rutgers was not out of the matchup as Malik Boothe, as part of a team plan, fouled Coburn early on the next Rutgers' possession. With 15 seconds remaining, Coburn sank both and brought the game within one point, 64-63.
Hardy turned the ball over on the Johnnies' next possession at the 13-second mark, giving Rutgers an opportunity to take the lead. However, the Scarlet Knights' Coburn missed a shot and Brownlee grabbed a huge defensive board.
Though Brownlee did not make the front end of a one-and-one, the possession stayed with the Johnnies. It would be a free throw shot by D.J. Kennedy (11 points) that would give the Queens, N.Y. team the game's final margin 65-63.
The Red Storm led 28-24 at the half.
St. John's shot 45.8 percent (22-of-48) from the field, while Rutgers shot 36.1 percent (22-of-61) overall.
The Johnnies, who received a one-game bye, were playing in their first game of the tournament on Wednesday. Meanwhile, Rutgers was coming off a 76-70 win in overtime over Seton Hall yesterday.
Scarlet Knights forward Jonathan Mitchell, who led all scorers with 25 points against the Hall in the first round of the tournament, was held to only eight points against the Johnnies.
"It's thinner air and teams are galvanized and playing with a purpose because they have an opportunity to go to the NCAA Tournament," said Lavin. "Also, teams that are well-coached, like Rutgers, are getting better with each practice and game experience. So, they're a better team than they were the first time we faced them and obviously better than they were earlier this year because none of their players let go of the rope."
The last time these regional rivals played each other was during the regular season on Feb. 2 when St. John's edged Rutgers 58-56 on a layup by Brownlee with four seconds left in the game.
St. John's will continue its upward climb as the Queens, N.Y squad will go on to play up-state New York foe Syracuse in the tournament's quarterfinal tomorrow, Thursday, Mar. 9, at the World's Most Famous Arena.
The Red Storm lost to the Orange during the regular season.