Thursday, April 3, 2003

Big East rivals go for NIT title

Georgetown, St. John's know each other well

By Andrea Szulszteyn
The Associated Press

NEW YORK - St. John's coach Mike Jarvis walked into the room, picked up his cell phone and started talking to no one.

"What's that? Do you want me to tell him that?" Jarvis joked. He closed his phone and announced, "It's all set, Coach Esherick won't be here tomorrow."

Playing a conference rival in the National Invitation Tournament can provide such moments of levity. The Red Storm play Craig Esherick's Georgetown squad Thursday night in the NIT final, and St. John's (20-13) hopes to add another title to its tournament-record five championships.

Perhaps Jarvis should have joked that Georgetown big man Michael Sweetney won't be able to make it. Sweetney saved his best performance of the season for the end, dominating teams down low during the Hoyas' resent resurgence. He had 32 points against Minnesota in the semifinals Tuesday night.

Sweetney averages a double-double (22.8 points, 10.4 rebounds). He also is a junior, and he has given no indication whether he will leave school to enter the NBA draft.

"He's got to be if not the best big man in college, one of the best," St. John's guard Marcus Hatten said.

Hatten also has been the Red Storm's best player throughout the season. He scored 14 of his game-high 34 points in the final 3:17 to help St. John's erase a 16-point deficit in the final seven minutes and beat the Hoyas 77-72 on Jan. 18.

St. John's entered its game against Duke on March 2 at 12-12. But the Red Storm upset the Blue Devils 72-71 on Hatten's free throw with no time left, starting a string of eight wins in nine games.

Hatten also won the game against Texas Tech in the semifinals, hitting a layup with 16 seconds left to give the Red Storm a thrilling 64-63 victory.

Georgetown (19-14) also has won five of its last six after struggling throughout the regular season.

"St. John's went through some of the same growing pains we went through," Esherick said. "(Recently) our defense has picked up and we've played extremely good defense in the NIT."

Just one year ago, the Hoyas turned down a bid to the NIT because they would have had to play on the road and miss classes. Now Esherick is happy to represent the Big East in the postseason.

Aside from having two league teams play for the NIT title, four Big East squads made the round of 16 and Syracuse is in the Final Four.

"There were a lot of teams in our league that were better than people thought in terms of the national press," Esherick said.

Georgetown has never won the NIT title. The Hoyas played in the final in 1993 but lost to Minnesota 62-61. Aside from having the chance to coach in the NIT, Esherick played at Georgetown in 1978 when the Hoyas made the semifinals and lost to North Carolina State, then lost again in the consolation game to Rutgers.

St. John's is no stranger to going to the championship game. Aside from having five titles - the last in 1989 - the Red Storm have the most wins in the tournament's history (44). In the locker room, a simple message is posted: "Know your ring size. St. John's goes for No. 6."

"We had a lot of games that could have been our last, but this is a grand finale," Hatten said. "We look forward to doing something special."

The win over Texas Tech gave the Red Storm the 37th 20-win season in school history. It wasn't easy to reach that mark.

"After we beat Duke, we realized we could play with anybody in the country," said junior guard Willie Shaw, who bruised his shoulder against the Red Raiders but expects to play against Georgetown. "The world thought we were going to get blown out, but that has been the turning point of the season."

Minnesota (19-13) and Texas Tech (21-13) play in the consolation game. Coach Bob Knight saw the Red Raiders blow a 10-point lead against St. John's in his bid to win a second NIT title. Knight led Indiana to the championship in 1979.

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