There were tears running down the face of a grown man in the stands. As the seconds ticked down on the clock Thursday afternoon at Madison Square Garden, it was a sea of red that collectively stood up and celebrated at the Big East Tournament as Rick Pitino moved to 15-7 all time in the event. 

No, it wasn’t Louisville fans. 

It was the St. John’s fan base. This was their time, and it was long overdue.

RJ Luis scored a team-high 18 points and Joel Soriano added 14 points and 12 rebounds to lead St. John’s to a memorable 91-72 win over Seton Hall in the Big East Tournament quarterfinals.

The Red Storm finally did it. The hometown team, playing inside their home building, The World’s Most Famous Arena, advanced to the Big East Tournament semifinal round for the first time since 2000. The last time St. John’s University won the Big East Tournament, NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye” topped the music charts and Erin Brockovichpremiered as the No. 1 movie. 

So yes, on Thursday, the private Catholic university in Queens, New York, that has often been on the wrong end of jokes for the better part of the last two decades because of their inability to win the big game, had their moment.

“This is the biggest win in St. John’s Basketball history in 24 years – bar none,” said Tarik Turner, a Red Storm alum who played for the Johnnies from 1994-98. 

The Johnnies exorcised their demons of the past, and leave it to a man who has overcome them to be the one to put the nail in that Big East Tournament drought coffin. 

Pitino said back in March that New York had no patience, vowing to get St. John’s back on the map right away. Well, it took some time this season, but the Red Storm have gone from a 14-12 group that came off a loss to Seton Hall and was ripped by the Hall of Famer for a lack of athleticism to reeling off six straight wins, and setting up a Big East Tournament semifinal game with top-seeded UConn (5:30 p.m. ET Friday on FOX).

The Johnnies now own a combined 10 wins over Quad 1 and 2, and FOX Sports bracket forecaster Mike DeCourcy says “it would take a lot at this point for them to be out.” 

Thursday signified a change in the times for the Johnnies, who have long tempted their fans to get back on the wagon, but this isn’t the same old St. John’s team, and the maestro of this New York orchestra isn’t the same old coach. The pure joy unleashed from the St. John’s fan base to know they’ve got Friday night plans at 34th and 8th in New York City was nostalgic, and produced that emotion from the 71-year-old Pitino. When he sat down in the press room, some chairs were pulled out of the MSG auxiliary closet and dusted off for the number of metropolitan press members. 

“This feels like the 80s this afternoon,” said the press room manager. 

Yes, it did feel like Lou Carnesecca’s golden age was back. 

“The most rewarding part of this job is every time I get a big win, Lou Carnesecca calls me up that night or the next day,” Pitino told FOX Sports following the win. “I’m just proud to be the torch-bearer of the program that Louie built.” 

‘Go as hard as you can go’ – St. John’s head coach Rick Pitino on what he told the team prior to Seton Hall matchup

On Thursday, the Red Storm showed their depth in the win over Seton Hall, with six players scoring in double-figures and a 37-7 advantage in bench points. That effort from the reserves was powered by Luis, who also added nine rebounds off the bench. The sophomore wing has just started practicing every day this week, having dealt with shin issues for the majority of the season. 

But it was more than just Luis. The captain of the team, Soriano, played his best game in weeks, recording a double-double.

“I was going to do whatever I could for us to win this game,” the senior said. “This is an unbelievable feeling. We play on Friday night at the Big East Tournament. Everybody that I know from St. John’s and coaches – Coach P even said, he said, playing Friday night at Madison Square Garden, there’s no other feeling, there’s no other tournament bigger than the Big East Tournament.” 

It’s an emotion that seemed very far from ever becoming possible 24 days ago when St. John’s lost a 19-point lead to Seton Hall and dropped a critical bubble game. 

“We’re extremely happy for St. John’s fans and the university,” Pitino said with a smile. “About three weeks ago, the administration, we were talking, and they said, ‘you know, you started so well, and I think everybody’s expectations were a little too high.’ And I just kept thinking. And they kept saying, ‘so, you know, it’s a good season, and let’s just finish up a good season.’ 

“I could sense in their thinking, that in their minds, it was over. In our minds it was just beginning, because March is what it’s all about in college basketball. We told the guys, you’ve got to play your best basketball going into March. And we knew we had seven elimination games. And these guys rose to the occasion on all seven. It’s never over if you keep getting better. My team looks at pressure as a great thing, you know.” 

Pitino Chronicles: Rick Pitino speaks on the Big East Tournament

As for what’s ahead, it’s a date with the No. 2-ranked Huskies, who the Red Storm were swept by this season.

“We got a lucky draw,” said Pitino with a chuckle. “Easy game.” 

While it will be the furthest thing from that, those fallen times that St. John’s Basketball has endured through make the results of a Big East Tournament semifinal berth and having one of the top coaches in the country on your sidelines that much more rewarding. 

“We’re ready to raise this roof up because St. John’s is going to be back,” Pitino said last March. “I guarantee that.” 

John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.



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