NEW YORK -- Just a few minutes after a dramatic 76-70 overtime win over Seton Hall in the first round of the Big East tournament, coach Mike Rice and his Rutgers players were already talking about their next challenge -- facing St. John's in less than 24 hours.
"I thought I was playing the hottest Big East team today, and then now you go and face an opponent that's even hotter in this building," said Rice, after his 13th-seeded Scarlet Knights knocked out their New Jersey rival, No. 12 seed Seton Hall, at Madison Square Garden.
For Rutgers (15-16, 5-13), it was the school's first Big East tournament victory since 2006 (which also came against the Hall).
"I've never won a Big East tournament game, so it was very, very exciting," senior guard Mike Coburn said. "[But] we can't really get caught up in this game here, when St. John's could turn around and kick your butt if we don't focus. So we're gonna be ready and come out tomorrow and play another game."
The Pirates closed the regular season with double-digit wins over St. John's and Marquette last week. But they couldn't hang on Tuesday afternoon after leading 56-48 with a little over seven minutes remaining -- just the latest in a string of losses this season in which Seton Hall (13-18, 7-11) blew a sizable second-half lead.
"That's been our Achilles heel. And that was our Achilles heel [today]," coach Kevin Willard said. "Just getting stops sometimes at the end of games really hurt us."
Willard's squad actually needed a desperation 3-pointer by leading scorer Jeremy Hazell (27 points) with one second remaining just to play an extra five minutes. But the Pirates couldn't capitalize on the momentum shift that often comes with a shot like that, repeatedly putting Rutgers on the foul line in overtime and making two critical turnovers in the final 30 seconds.
"The toughness it takes to regain your composure, it's unbelievable," Rice said. "You can't measure it, to be honest with you. And I loved it, that [my guys] had enough toughness to come back."
"Coach told us from Day 1, when he first got here, that we're gonna be comfortable in chaos," said Rutgers senior forward Jonathan Mitchell, who had a team-high 25 points. "And that was a very chaotic moment when [Hazell] hit that 3. So we just came in the huddle and said, 'We just gotta regroup, and we can't let that affect us in overtime.'"
"I thought it was gonna be a momentum changer," Hazell said of his shot. "We just didn't get stops at the end when we needed them. ... It's just a tough day."
While all this was going on, St. John's (20-10, 12-6) -- the No. 5 seed, earning the Red Storm a bye on Tuesday -- was back on campus in Queens, preparing for whichever opponent it would face on Wednesday. The Red Storm held a media session for reporters while the afternoon session of games was going on at the Garden, its second home.
"I like the fact that we're familiar with the Garden, because it's our home court and we've had some degree of success there," said St. John's coach Steve Lavin, whose team is 7-1 at MSG this season -- its only loss coming to Syracuse on Jan. 12. "But this is a whole 'nother animal when you step into the postseason single-elimination game format and a level of competition that's unparalleled in the country."
St. John's will continue to use the New York Knicks' locker room for the Big East tournament, as it has all season long, after Lavin requested that when he took the job last April.
"We're very confident in the Garden," said St. John's forward Justin Burrell, who was named the Big East's Sixth Man of the Year on Monday. "We play there so much we know the dead spots on the floor. ... We know if we're shooting on the left end of the Garden that there is a slight breeze of three degrees, you know? We're very familiar with The Garden so it's a big advantage.
"We're so excited that we get to play there again. We definitely think if we come out and play with energy and impose our style of basketball that we definitely have a good chance of winning."
St. John's and Rutgers played once this season, on Feb. 2 -- but the game was held at Carnesecca Arena in Queens, not at 33rd Street and Seventh Avenue. It was an ugly affair: St. John's shot just 36.7 percent from the field and Rutgers committed 23 turnovers (15 in the first half alone). The Red Storm led by 10 with 6:52 to play, but Rutgers stormed back, thanks to a barrage of 3-pointers by Mitchell and Robert Lumpkins.
A Lumpkins trey tied the game at 56 with 18 ticks remaining. But Lavin drew up a play for forward Justin Brownlee during the subsequent timeout, and Brownlee ended up with the ball in his hands at the top of the key. He drove the lane to his left and laid the ball up and in with four seconds remaining for the winning score. A Dane Miller 3-point heave missed at the buzzer.
"It was a rock fight at Carnesecca -- [we] didn't handle their zone very well," Rice said. "Again, it's a big challenge, love it -- we're on to the next round, a great opportunity for our program and our seniors to show how much we've improved."
Rutgers struggled down the stretch of the regular season, losing five of its last six and nine of its last 11, dating back to Jan. 26. St. John's, on the other hand, won nine of its last 11. After a close loss at UCLA three days after the Rutgers game, the Red Storm rattled off six wins in a row -- including home W's over Pitt and UConn, and a road victory over Villanova -- before closing out the regular season with a loss at Seton Hall and a home win over South Florida.
Both Burrell and leading scorer Dwight Hardy (17.9 ppg) admitted on Tuesday that they have thought about what it would be like to win the Big East tournament this week, which would be St. John's first Big East tourney win since 2000.
"I definitely have," Burrell said. "I feel like the whole team probably has as well. It's one of those things that's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. To be able to do that, cutting down those nets, would be the most spectacular feeling besides winning the national championship for us."
"I think about that a lot," Hardy said. "I think it would be a wonderful moment just to show all the work we've done this year and to win the Big East would be something spectacular."
St. John's hasn't even reached the quarterfinals in the Big East tournament since 2003. But this team has accomplished many things for the first time in a long time this season. Hardy, who was named first-team All-Big East on Monday and is playing as well as anyone in the conference right now, said he feels his team is capable of a deep run.
"I can just sense it," Hardy said. "We're ready for another challenge and this is a great challenge. I think we're ready to step up to the plate and handle it."
Let's see if they can handle the upstart Scarlet Knights first.