NEW YORK -- In its first test since a bull's-eye was planted squarely on its chest, St. John's passed with flying colors.
The Red Storm, playing a game as a ranked team for the first time in 11 seasons, pummeled last-place DePaul on Wednesday night, 76-51.
"We knew how important this game was," said St. John's forward D.J. Kennedy, who finished with 11 points and 10 rebounds. "In past years, we had letdowns in games like this. ... So we just locked in on everything."
There was certainly no letdown on this night -- even though St. John's was coming off a dramatic win over then-No. 4 Pittsburgh on Saturday, made the national polls on Monday for the first time since Nov. 28, 2000, and was playing a team that was 7-19 overall and 1-13 in Big East play coming in.
"I thought our team answered the bell in terms of the challenge of sustaining the level of play that we've had in this stretch of eight games," St. John's coach Steve Lavin said.
The red-hot Red Storm (18-9, 10-5) have won seven of their past eight, including five in a row. They already have accumulated their most wins overall since the 2002-03 season (21), and their most Big East wins since 1999-2000 (12).
"They showed no signs of a let-up tonight," said DePaul coach Oliver Purnell, whose team was actually coming off a win over Providence, followed by a two-point overtime loss to Villanova. "That zone defense had a lot to do with it -- that's probably the best zone that we've seen all year long. And they're playing with a lot of confidence offensively."
This game was over early, as St. John's built a 15-point halftime lead, and doubled the margin to 30, 61-31, with more than 10 minutes remaining. The Red Storm outscored the Blue Demons 42-18 in the paint, 19-0 on the fast break, and limited them to just 30.9 percent shooting from the field (17-for-55).
"The combination of our full-court press with our changing half-court defense is disruptive, when we bring good energy and we're active and we're tied together, working in concert," Lavin said. "Tonight was one of the games where we were able to sustain the energy and the effort."
The St. John's players said that energy was something they spoke about a lot before this game -- especially because it was to be played at Carnesecca Arena. The Red Storm are 7-1 at Madison Square Garden this season, but were just 3-2 at their smaller on-campus facility, and had not played nearly as well there even in the three wins.
"It seems like our energy level hasn't been as high as it was in the Garden," said St. John's guard Dwight Hardy. "Tonight we just wanted to make sure we started off good, and that we had no let-ups."
It didn't hurt that a capacity crowd of 5,602 -- including Lou Carnesecca himself -- was on hand for the game, the 500th in the building's history. (St. John's is now 420-80 in those games.)
Hardy had a game-high 21 points on 8-for-13 shooting from the field. It was his 11th game with 20 or more points this season. But Lavin also called attention to Paris Horne's performance (14 points, 6-for-7 shooting), as well as freshman Dwayne Polee (eight points, four rebounds, three blocks and two assists in just 15 minutes).
And he was very happy with the overall team effort.
"There's a natural tendency in human nature to exhale or be complacent or distracted when you've hit some benchmarks recently, like being in the top 25," Lavin said. "Tonight's victory is an example of a team developing a hard edge and maturity that will bode well for us coming down the home stretch, getting into the postseason."
Before the postseason arrives, however, Lavin's squad has three regular-season games remaining -- at No. 14 Villanova on Saturday, followed by Seton Hall on the road and South Florida at home, two very winnable contests. And after Wednesday night's results, St. John's is tied for third in the conference with Louisville -- meaning a two-round bye to the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament is a distinct possibility.
Plus, Lavin said, considering he's only been coaching them since mid-October, this team hasn't even peaked yet, in his estimation.
"They're still at a point where they're growing more comfortable with an entire new system that was implemented in terms of our pressure schemes, our zone defense, as well as our offensive attack," Lavin said. "So I feel, as they get more reps in these next two or three weeks, we need to elevate our level of play on both ends of the court, and there's room for that."
"We're really excited where we're standing right now," St. John's forward Justin Burrell said. "Sky's the limit. Sky's the limit for us."