NEW YORK — Leave it to Dan Hurley’s Huskies to refuse to play another close game. After a competitive, rackety first 30 minutes, No. 1 UConn waltzed to a over St. John’s on Saturday afternoon at a sold-out Madison Square Garden.
Which means Connecticut, now having won 10 in a row and boasting a beastly 20-2 record, will hold the No. 1 ranking for a fourth consecutive week.
“This (is) our shit,” UConn center Donovan Clingan said joyfully, pointing at St. John’s court when the clock hit zeros.
An impassioned cry after a passionate affair in front of nearly 20,000 people.
This was the first true sellout for a St. John’s game at the Garden in ages. That’s the Rick Pitino effect. (It’s also the UConn effect.) We are still a month away from March, but this is what Big East hoops has become. Appointment viewing every week. Star coaches. Highly anticipated matchups.
And until the final eight minutes of game time on Saturday, MSG was treated to theater: 17 lead changes, eight ties, Johnnies backers and Huskies honks trading chants. MSG felt as vital as almost any Big East Tournament game of recent vintage.
A great way to start an epic day in college basketball.
But with the score 69-58 in favor of UConn with 4:45 to go and another bout of “LET’S-GO-HUS-KIES!” chants showering over the bowls of MSG, what seemed inevitable soon proved factual.
St. John’s wasn’t beating the top team in the country this afternoon.
“They’re better than us,” an unsurprised Rick Pitino said afterward. The St. John’s coach, having made seven Final Fours and coached two national-title-winning teams, knows greatness when he sees it. Pitino said this UConn team can be better than last year’s title-winning group, too.
On Saturday, UConn looked the part and again showed why it’s claimed the highest ceiling of any team in the country, dating back to November. It got this win in spite of not having starting forward Alex Karaban (ankle). It also didn’t matter that Clingan picked up his fourth foul with 11:05 to go.
Connecticut wore down SJU in the second half, the compound effects of one of the most relentless rosters in the country refusing to dip its battery charge. After holding a one-point first half lead, St. John’s managed just 40% shooting (not a 3-pointer made, either) after the intermission. Cam Spencer, the ever-chatty Huskies guard, had a game-high 23 points. Freshman Stephon Castle put up his second straight game with a career-high in scoring: 20 vs. Providence on Wednesday, 21 today inside the Garden. Tristen Newton had 18 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists.
It went from barn-burner to 13-point outcome and a swift reminder of the reality between these two squads.
And yet: If you’re a college basketball fan, you likely tuned in for some of it. It’s Pitino vs. Hurley, a burgeoning rivalry that college hoops leans all the way into. And despite Pitino’s claims from December about scheduling UConn to play at tiny Carnesecca Arena moving forward, the Johnnies and Huskies will meet back at The World’s Most Famous Arena again next season, and the one after that, and the one after that.
“We’ll be back here and will play them in this building,” Pitino told CBS Sports.
What made him change his mind? Well, the Big East has intentions and ideas about how to best market its most marketable teams, for one. But also?
“Well, when I walked out and saw the crowd,” Pitino said.
Yeah, the crowd was phenomenal and easily persuasive. Pitino knows this is where this game needs to be, even if that means thousands of Connecticut fans will swallow up tickets.
The split on Saturday was close to 50/50, with St. John’s red covering a lot of the lower bowl — but UConn navy blue almost entirely coating the higher sections. It’s the best neutral-court environment you’re going to get before we turn to March.
“I think deep down inside, I know [Pitino] wants to play this game in here,” Hurley told CBS Sports. “At some point here with Rick Pitino, it’s not going to be a 70-30 crowd. Because they’re going to elevate, you know that they’re going to be ranked in the top 10, top 15.”
Hurley told me — and I pressed him on this, as to avoid the coachspeak — the win over Pitino on a personal level doesn’t register much. That’s not where his sense of satisfaction came after this game.
“Has nothing to do with his his greatness or stature in the game, but I’ve got bad records versus some coaches that I think I’m probably better than and vice-versa, so I think that that’s probably like an overstated thing,” Hurley said. “Getting to 20-2 and be able to hold on to the No. 1 belt and continuing to build a potentially a No. 1 seed resume and to be able to try to keep ourselves in Brooklyn (for the NCAA Tournament) … and pursuing a regular-season championship.”
So, all of that back-and-forth with the veiled comments and barbs at each other over the previous six weeks? We supposed to pretend like that didn’t happen? Of course not.
“Some of the stuff we do piss each other off,” Hurley said at the postgame press conference. “Recruiting sometimes. You don’t like the way somebody recruited a player and you hold on to that shit. Same thing, in-game, might not like how I coach with the refs, with the emotion, it causes friction. I think it’s good. I think it brought a lot of interest into this game, it packed this arena and I think a lot of people watched.”
Connecticut-St. John’s with Hurley and Pitino strutting on the sidelines is marquee-matchup content. Hurley’s now 3-0 in this setting, dating back to last March’s first-round NCAA Tournament win over Pitino-coached Iona. The Garden on Saturday made Knicks games look JV, from a fan-support standpoint.
Hurley accurately described the layout thusly: “A great St. John’s team at MSG is great for the Big East and great for college basketball.”
So, see you at the Garden next month?
The Big East Tournament is six weeks away, but I get the sense neither of these coaches want to face off against the other again when that happens.
“I don’t think we’re going to become best friends this summer,” Hurley said. “But I respect the hell out of him.”
“I don’t think we’re anywhere close to being a rival with them,” Pitino said. “It maybe could become a rivalry some day. It’s not now.”
We can’t get there until we get some more runs in. Huskies vs. Johnnies once more in 2024 wouldn’t be the worst thing. Picture it. Connecticut chasing a top tournament seed. St. John’s likely fighting to get into the Big Dance. Pitino potentially with a high-stakes, do-or-die game in his backyard and with one more crack at the mighty Huskies. We should hope to be so lucky.