To set the Madison Square Garden "stage" for MU's 1st round game, it was a battle of two disabled, but determined squads. MU adversity and post-season mission are well known to fans. But St John's dedicated the game to their missing, injured 1st Team All Conf and leading scorer, 6-10 Sr. Lamont Hamilton. The Johnnies were also motivated by their first BET appearance in four years in front of hometown fans and on their MSG home court. They would not go back to Queens without a fight. Although MU controlled the score throughout (until the Johnnies tied it at 45 with 13:15 left), MU was not able to lock-up victory until the last 30 seconds. Its tournament time baby – when the going gets tough, the tough get going. More clichés – a team victory…
Wes Mathews stepped-up and contributed two key plays to gain the victory, each at the end of each half. At 1:12 in the 1st, MU came out of a timeout with a set play and Wes swished a 3. MU followed this with a defensive "stop" and closed the half with MU spurting to a 35-27 lead on a great play-assist by Dominique James to Lazar Hayward. It was a pattern for the entire game as MU would spurt and the Johnnies claw back. Mathews capped his heroics with 35 seconds left in the game and MU's David Cubillan at the line as MU clung to a 68-64 lead against the desperation-driven Johnnies: Cubie missed both (groan!), but Wes grabbed the rebound with a great hop knifing between St John's defenders. Mathews controlling the ball, allowing clock control at that point was a key to MU's victory. Mathews finished with 15 Points (an important 9-10 FT again), 5 Rebounds and 4 Assists. An effort typical of Mathews season that Coach Crean and fans thought should have put him on the All Conference team.
About MU team determination,…Dan Fitzgerald, starting for McNeal, scored 20 Points, including 4-8 on 3 pointers and had 5 Rebounds… In another late season sound effort, Lazar Hayward had 14 points and lead the team with 7 Rebounds (MU out rebounded the Johnnies 41-28.)… Ousmane Barro contributed 6 points and 5 Rebounds, but was hampered by fouls, only playing 24 minutes. Teammates filled-in ably as Dwight Burke played D, grabbed 3 boards and had a steal… and most notably Mike Kinsella continued his Senior run by hitting two key 3 pointers (2-2) in the 2nd half, and pulling down 5 rebounds in the 1st half. Dominique James had 8 Assists, 9 points (including 5-6 FTs), 5 rebounds and 1 steal. Our shooting % could improve, and it wasn't always pretty, but it was a hard-working, determined team effort.
Now, this "hardest working team on hardwood" faces 3rd seeded Pitt (who did not play Wednesday with a first round bye) Thursday evening. This is the team MU denied the conference co-championship last Saturday night. This rematch, after MU's home-and-away victories over #12 Pitt this season, promises another clash of teams driven by determination and wills. Don't ever count this MU TEAM out.