A throwback game for the Big East

SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — In the formative years of the Big East Conference, when Georgetown, Syracuse, St. John’s, Villanova and their brother...


SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — In the formative years of the Big East Conference, when Georgetown, Syracuse, St. John’s, Villanova and their brothers were just beginning to develop enmity toward each other, basketball games men’s still played in rickety boxes with warped floors, frothy fans and a steady exchange of sharp elbows.

It was called the atmosphere.

In no time, the fledgling conference became the center of the college basketball universe in the early 1980s, with Washington Pearl, Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin are becoming household names from Brooklyn to Berkeley thanks to fellow upstart ESPN.

It wasn’t long before the games demanded a bigger stage. So instead of playing in places like McDonough Gym, Manley Fieldhouse, Alumni Hall and the Cat House, schools rented NBA arenas — or in the case of Syracuse boldly built the cavernous Carrier Dome — and planted their postseason tournament flag at Madison Square Garden.

The Great East may be a far cry from those dizzying heights – a basketball-centric league destined to be overlooked in today’s football-funded world. But necessity (and the coronavirus pandemic) allowed him to tap into those roots on Monday night when the Seton Hall men’s team welcomed St. John’s to their long-ago home on campus with 1,316 fans at the Walsh Gymnasium.

It was also a throwback on the court, with St. John’s Seton Hall routing, 84-63, as the teams resumed their original seven Big East roles as conference powerhouses and patsys.

The Johnnies’ win came two days after Seton Hall dropped them in a sparsely populated garden, in contrast to the trip across the Hudson, where the cozy gym was filled with nothing but college students, teachers, friends and family.

“It felt like everyone was over you,” said Aaron Wheeler of St. John’s, a 6-foot-9 springy transfer from Purdue, whose father, William, was a high school teammate at the former St. John’s star Mark Jackson before playing Manhattan College himself.

“There weren’t too many people in there but it was still really loud,” added Aaron Wheeler, who contributed 17 points, 10 rebounds, 3 assists and a block in a rare start. “I thought it was a great environment overall.”

The game itself bore many old-school Big East characteristics – starting with St. John’s (11-7, 3-4 Big East) harassing, all-court defense that made Seton Hall (12-6, 3-5), who was missing his best ball handler, guard Bryce Aiken (concussion), baffled on offense.

The Johnnies blocked 11 shots and even when they didn’t win the ball back they left an impression – like when Seton Hall’s Kadary Richmond, who missed all eight of his shots on a miserable night, was crushed by three defenders as he made his way to the basket.

There were a few moments where Seton Hall meant it was a two-way street. Ike Obiagu got up to stuff the massive Joel Soriano’s dunk attempt. And just before half-time, Tyrese Samuel set up a crisp display that featured the St. John’s spark plug of one point guard, Posh Alexander, giving the crowd a taste of what they’re up to. really, really wanted.

There had been much anticipation for the game at the scenic Seton Hall campus, where nearly half of the school’s 6,000 undergraduate students live.

The game was originally scheduled for December 20 at the Pirates’ usual home, the Prudential Center in downtown Newark, but an outbreak of coronavirus in the Seton Hall schedule forced it to be postponed. And when the Prudential Center was unavailable Monday night because of a Korean pop concert, the Pirates moved the game to their campus instead.

“I couldn’t miss this for the world,” said Andrew Travis, a freshman diplomacy student who arrived three hours before kickoff to be on the front line with his friends, JJ Misiewicz and Jerry Ford, making sure they would get a seat in the middle of the court.

The pandemic sent some teams back to campus gyms last season when coronavirus restrictions barred them from playing in front of fans. Earlier this season, Texas played in front of just students in its first men’s basketball game at the 3,234-seat Gregory Gym since 1977. Similarly, Seton Hall kicked off Monday’s game as a student reward – the Blue Beard Army – who provide strong support to the Prudential Center.

The Walsh gymnasium where the students arrived on Monday is not the one Bill Raftery, the college basketball commentator and former Seton Hall coach, remembers — dark with poor lighting and a dark, warped floor near from the midfield after a flood, which looked like a poor man’s floor.

It now shines after a series of renovations with blue and white chairs replacing most of the bleachers, a whitewashed wooden floor with a Pirate logo in the center and team desks replacing most of the seats behind a basket, making the building built in 1939, a clean, contemporary home for Seton Hall’s women’s basketball and volleyball teams, and where the men’s basketball team occasionally plays a non-conference game.

Yet one stage remains at one end of the yard, the same graced in the mid-1970s by Bruce Springsteen for a pair of gigs after releasing “Greetings From Asbury Park.”

Don Bunch, the Rochester Royals and the Harlem Globetrotters played at the field, which also hosted the Big East Conference’s first game, Boston College’s victory over Seton Hall on December 11, 1979.

Raftery was then on the sidelines.

He described the old gymnasiums in the Great East as intimate and intense, where coaches knew they had home-court advantage. St. John’s coach Lou Carnesecca remarked that every year he visited Seton Hall, the same window was smashed in the visitors’ dressing room. Rollie Massimino, Villanova’s trainer, used to have two priests sitting behind the bench at the Nevin Fieldhouse, the 2,200-seat gymnasium on campus known as the Cat House.

“I said, ‘Fathers, I hope you’re praying for both teams,'” said Raftery, who broadcast Monday night’s game. “They said, ‘We are. We pray for one to win and one to lose.

Once, a referee warned Raftery that he was about to call the overzealous Pirate mascot a technical foul. So Raftery turned to his assistant, Hoddy Mahon, telling him to calm down the mascot. As Mahon began to scold the mascot, he said to Mahon, “Dad, it’s me.”

Crowd behavior on Monday was within limits but loud.

It was loud enough at one point that St. John’s coach Mike Anderson had to enter the field to yell at guard Stef Smith, who couldn’t hear Anderson call for a time out. “During the start lines, just hearing the energy in the arena, I felt so, so good, I got goosebumps,” said Jamir Harris, a senior guard at Seton Hall. .

The crowd looked set to wear Seton Hall all the way in the second half, when they cut a 21-point deficit to 8 with 13 minutes left. But Montez Mathis, who played a superb doubles game, hit in a rare 3-pointer to thwart the momentum. And a few minutes later, Tareq Coburn collected a 3-pointer to beat the shot clock, pushing St. John’s lead to 22 points.

By this time, three students above the bench at Seton Hall, wearing speedos, swimming caps and goggles, had seen enough. They pulled on their pants, put on their shirts, and bundled up to head for the exit, perhaps finding a silver lining along the way: it wouldn’t take them long to get back to the dorms.

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