By Anthony Bosco
For Anthony Glover, it was a perfect way to end his college career. With a sea of red-clad fans covering the hollowed hardwood at Madison Square Garden, the captain of the St. John’s University men’s basketball team couldn’t resist the temptation any longer.
The four-year starter and grad student climbed atop the scorers’ table, waving a shirt overhead, and smiled as broadly as he ever had.
“I wasn’t even thinking about it. But at the last moment, I was like ‘You know what, I’m a champion and I’m going to do what champions do, stand up on this darn thing and have fun,’” Glover said.
The St. John’s University men’s basketball team won the 2003 National Invitation Tournament Thursday night at Madison Square Garden, edging out conference rival Georgetown, 70-67, in the first all-Big East final in the 66-year history of the tournament.
For the Red Storm (21-13), the victory and the championship capped a tumultuous season that saw both highs and lows. St. John’s closed out the season by winning nine of the team’s last 10 games, including five straight in the NIT.
And while some have questioned the validity of a national tournament that allowed St. John’s, the most successful school in the history of the NIT, including 27 appearances and six titles, to play essentially five home games, head coach Mike Jarvis was all smiles right after the win.
“They never lost faith, they stuck together, they kept working,” Jarvis said of his team, which was 12-12 before upsetting the Duke Blue Devils on March 2. “We’ve been on quite a roll.”
So had the Georgetown Hoyas (19-15), who had won five of their six games, including road wins over Tennessee, Providence and North Carolina in the NIT before an 88-74 semifinal win over the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Throughout that run, center Mike Sweetney — as he had been all year — was the center of the Hoyas’ success. The big man had a 32-point, nine-rebound performance against Minnesota and was the focus of the Red Storm defense heading into Thursday’s match-up.
“Sweetney is just such a great player, you can’t stop him totally, but what you can do is try to make it a little more difficult and try to make other people beat you,” Jarvis said. “There were times we played him straight up, there were times we doubled on him, there were times we went zone and surrounded him. You got to do a lot of different things. There are times you want to keep the ball as far away from him as possible, but you can’t stop him.”
Sweetney’s play in the first half was the main reason Georgetown went into halftime with a 38-34 advantage.
After St. John’s star Marcus Hatten opened the game with two threes to give SJU a 6-2 lead, Sweetney made his presence felt. A three by Gerald Riley gave GTown its first lead, 9-3, setting up six straight points by Sweetney. And while Red Storm’s Kyle Cuffe was able to get inside on the offensive end, defensively, neither Cuffe, Glover or junior Grady Reynolds had an answer for Sweetney early.
Jarvis even went to the seldom-used 7-foot-2 Curtis Johnson briefly, but to no avail. Six more points by Sweetney (25 points, 9 rebounds, 6 blocks) pushed the Hoyas’ lead to eight, 31-23, with 4:11 remaining in the first half. Contributions from Reynolds, Abe Keita, Elijah Ingram and, of course, Hatten, helped SJU cut its deficit to four at the break.
Neither team seemed willing to step up and grab control of the game at the start of the second half, as both were held scoreless until Hatten (22 points, 3 steals) scored at the 16:29 mark. A Hatten three at 15:48 gave the Red Storm its first lead since early in the first half.
Georgetown finally scored in the second half when Tony Bethel drilled a three at 14:18, but the Hoyas never seemed to really gain control of the game as they had in the first half. An old-fashioned three-point play by Sweetney gave the Hoyas a 44-43 lead, but it did not last long, as Hatten again hit from long range less than a minute later.
St. John’s stretched its lead to six, 60-54, after a three and two free throws by Elijah Ingram, but the stubborn Georgetown team would not quit. Bethel tied the game with a basket at the 1:24 mark, and Hatten made just one-of-two from the line 11 seconds later to give SJU a 68-67 lead.
Hatten had a chance to extend the lead, but missed an awkward jumper with about 40 seconds remaining, giving the Hoyas plenty of time to set up a play that could give them the lead.
After three timeouts, all Georgetown could come up with was a wild three-point attempt by Riley that was rebounded by Reynolds with 4.1 seconds remaining, while Glover called a timeout.
“When you got two or three guys around one guy, you can’t pass it to him and somebody else is going to have to take the shot,” Jarvis said of his team’s defense on Sweetney. “You have to take your chances with that, and that’s what they did because they had to. One thing they know how to do is get Sweetney the ball. The only time they don’t get him the ball is when they can’t. Our guys did a great job, and we were lucky the ball didn’t go in.”
Ingram added two clutch free throws after being fouled on the inbounds play, and a desperation last-second shot by the Hoyas bounced harmlessly to the floor.
As the horn sounded, thousands of St. John’s faithful stormed the court.
“Any time you win your last game it’s kind of special,” Jarvis said. “The great news is that you are champions. The bad news is there is no practice tomorrow. I’m very, very proud of the team.”
Hatten was not the only offense for St. John’s. Ingram finished with 19 points, including a perfect 8-for-8 from the charity stripe. Reynolds had another huge game, scoring 13 points with 13 rebounds and 3 blocks. Cuffe added 8 points and 7 rebounds.
It may not have been the NCAAs, but the school’s first NIT championship since 1989 seemed the perfect balm for a season of unfulfilled expectations.
Reach Sports Editor Anthony Bosco by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 130.