Rick Pitino leads St. John's to 91-72 victory over Seton Hall in return to Big East Tournament

NEW YORK (AP) — As St. John’s slumped through mid-February, Rick Pitino was exasperated by his team at times, but always hopeful.

“In our minds it was just the beginning, because March is what it's all about in college basketball,” Pitino said Thursday. “We told the guys you got to play your best basketball going into March.”

Mission accomplished.

Pitino returned to the Big East Tournament for the first time in 11 years and coached fifth-seeded St. John's to a 91-72 victory over fourth-seeded Seton Hall. The Red Storm (20-12) will take a six-game winning streak into the semifinals Friday night against top-seeded and No. 2 UConn at Madison Square Garden.

The Johnnies will be making their first Big East semifinal appearance since 2000 — which was also the last time they won the tournament.

“It's an unbelievable feeling, man,” said St. John's center Joel Soriano, who had 14 points and 12 rebounds. “Everybody that I've known from St. John's and coaches —- Coach P even said, he said, ‘Playing Friday night at Madison Square Garden, there’s no better feeling, there's no other tournament bigger than the Big East Tournament.'”

Pitino sarcastically added: “And we got a lucky draw. Easy game.”

Pitino won three Big East Tournaments while at Louisville — the last one in 2013 on the way to an NCAA championship — before the school moved to the Atlantic Coast Conference.

The traditional Big East matchup of St. John's and Seton Hall paired two teams still trying to secure a spot in the NCAA Tournament. St. John's is making a strong closing case.

The Red Storm has not lost since Pitino, in his first year with the program, went off on his team after it blew a 19-point lead against Seton Hall on Feb. 18.

“I’m not gonna lie to you: This is the most unenjoyable experience of my lifetime,” Pitino said then.

He sounded much different Thursday after his team won another game it could hardly afford to lose.

“They look at pressure as a great thing,” Pitino said.

RJ Luis Jr. led the Johnnies with 18 points, and Jordan Dingle had 14.

Al-Amir Dawes scored 22 points to keep Seton Hall (20-12) in the game, but St. John's controlled the second half with its fast pace.

The 71-year-old Pitino, sharply dressed in a navy-blue suit with a white pocket square and red and white striped tie, paced the sidelines, alternating between hands clasped behind his back and arms crossed. Every now and then, he took a knee to get a better view of his team.

He liked what he saw out of halftime. The Red Storm scored the first six points out of the break, with Glenn Taylor Jr.'s layup making it 51-40 and prompting Seton Hall coach Shaheen Holloway to call a timeout with 17:57 left.

“Everything that we do to teams, they did to us,” Holloway said.

The lead swelled to 71-56 when Dingle made a 3 from the wing with 9:10 left that drew another Seton Hall timeout and a roar from the Red Storm fans who made up a lot of the sellout crowd at the school's home away from home.

HE'S BACK

Pitino's star was launched in the Big East 37 years ago when he took Providence to the 1987 Final Four. Those Friars went 1-1 in the Big East Tournament, beating Lou Carnesecca and St. John's before losing to John Thompson and Georgetown in the semifinals.

Then it was off to the NBA and the Knicks, before returning to college basketball, first with Kentucky and then Louisville. Each stop included a national title — and some scandals.

After a three-year stint at Iona, Pitino was back in the Big East. Predictably, he has the Red Storm in the running for their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2019.

Pitino would be the first head coach to lead six schools to the NCAA Tournament if St. John's gets in.

“We're a hot team,” Pitino said when asked about St. John's NCAA positioning. “We're going to try to win this Big East crown.”

UP NEXT

St. John's lost both its meetings with UConn this season.

The Pirates make a solid case for inclusion in the NCAA field of 68, with five Quad 1 victories — including one against UConn — but they'll sweat it out until Selection Sunday.

“I think our resume speaks for itself,” Holloway said. “We have 13 wins in the best conference in the country.”

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