NEW YORK– When the Big East was formed close to 40 years ago, St. John’s and Georgetown rapidly developed into one of the great rivalries in college basketball.
For about five volatile, intense minutes in Madison Square Garden here Wednesday night, it felt like 1985 again, back when Georgetown and St. John’s were ranked 1-2 in the AP poll and played the Big East tournament championship and the electric atmosphere felt like it might erupt into a street brawl at any moment.
Times have changed since then. The two teams that once were the face of the conference were involved in a seemingly meaningless 8-9 game between two 14-18 teams. But both the Johnnies and Hoyas brought back some old memories when a bench clearing melee broke out after St. John’s 6-10, 240 pound forward Amar Alibegovic fouled Georgetown guard L.J. Peak on a drive to the basket with 8:43 remaining in the second half of a 74-73 Red Storm victory .
St. John’s, which got 17 points from talented freshman guard Shamorie Ponds, will play top-seeded Villanova at 12 noon Thursday.
But the crowd of 14,830 left the building talking about the Big East’s trademark playground intensity
The Red Storm was leading 59-55 when Peak went sprawling to the court, close to the basket support. After the play, Georgetown players surrounded Alibegovic and he fell backward into the crowd after appearing to be pushed by Georgetown’s 6-10, 250- pound center Bradley Hayes. Officials eventually broke up the bench clearing scuffle, but then St. John’s coach Chris Mullin added some unexpected spice when he left the bench, walked toward the Hoyas’ bench and got into a heated exchange with Georgetown coach John Thompson III and the Hoyas bench. Thompson yelled back and the referees stood between the two head coaches. Ewing Jr. left the bench and approached Mullin before being restrained as well.Mullin and Ewing Jr. was each whistled for technical foul and Aligegovic was hit with a flagrant I personal.
“I just went out there to see what was going on,” Mullin said. “I saw Marcus (Lovett) go into the stands. I wanted to make sure he was okay. Close games like that, when a team knows if they lose their season is over, really gets the competitive juices flowing.”
Georgetown coach John Thompson III refused to get specific. “It’s just competition,” he said. “It’s the Big East tournament. It’s just competition. That’s all. Kids were playing hard and coaches were coaching hard. L.J. goes in, takes a hard foul. I think it’s just the heat of the battle. Tempers flare.”
It is ironic JT III, whose father was a Hall of Fame coach at Georgetown who coached the Hoyas to a national championship; Mullin and Ewing Jr. were a central part of this drama. Ewing Jr’s father Patrick Sr. and Mullin, were arguably the two best players ever to play in the Big East.
The dust finally settled but the rest of the game mirrored the emotional volatility St. John’s built a 74-68 lead when forward Darien Williams nailed a jumper from the top of the key with 2:59 to play, but the Hoyas clawed back to within 74-73 and had a chance to win it on the final possession after Hayes blocked a layup by St. John’s freshman guards Shamorie Ponds and Rodney Pryor grabbed the rebound with seven seconds to play. But the Hoyas couldn’t finish the game off when Peak missed a layup just before the buzzer and the St. John’s fans in the crowd of 14,830 breathed a long sigh of relief.
After the game, Mullin and Ewing Jr. seemed to have settled their differences. “I asked him if he was going to beat me up like his father did,” Mullin said. “He said no, I love you, so I said OK. He was on the trip with us in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona when he was a little baby. So yeah, just tremendous respect. Nothing more than competitive juices. This time. In ’85, there was more to it, not in the year 2017.”
Most conferences evolve past this type of playground spats But the physicality is a reminder of what has always set the Big East apart, city kids playing the city game for bragging rights.
“We were very aware of the rivalry,” St. John’s guard Malik Ellison said. “Obviously, it’s a big rivalry. When Coach Mullin was playing, Georgetown was very physical and they were very competitive. So we just came out here and we really fought for him.”
St. John’s fans have renewed enthusiasm for another day. Georgetown fans have a growing frustration that comes from the disappointment they feel from a program that will miss the NCAA tournament three out of the past four years and will no doubt increase the pressure on JT III to produce better results in the future.
Dick Weiss is a sportswriter and columnist who has covered college football and college and professional basketball for the Philadelphia Daily News and the New York Daily News for 40 years. He has also co-written seven books with Rick Pitino, John Calipari, Dick Vitale and authored a tribute book on Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.