NEW YORK (AP)—Georgetown and St. John’s were as far away from winning a championship as any team could be halfway through the regular season.
The Hoyas couldn’t find a way to win—they lost six straight from Jan. 25 to Feb. 11, including two by one point. St. John’s had struggles of its own, having lost six of its eight games in February.
Look at the two teams now.
The Big East rivals will play in the National Invitation Tournament championship game Thursday night after victories in the semifinals Tuesday. St. John’s advanced with a thrilling 64-63 comeback win over coach Bob Knight and Texas Tech, while Georgetown easily handled Minnesota 88-74.
“Even at the lowest point of the season, I never once thought that we didn’t have a good team,” Georgetown coach Craig Esherick said. “We knew there was a light at the end of the tunnel. We were trying to find it.”
The Red Storm (20-13) almost failed to make the final. Marcus Hatten stole the ball from Will Chavis and made a layup with 16.2 seconds remaining to give the Red Storm the victory.
Hatten led the Red Storm with 24 points, and freshman Elijah Ingram finished with 16 as St. John’s overcame a 10-point deficit with seven minutes to play.
“Any time you can get a victory against a Bobby Knight-coached team, that’s something you remember,” St. John’s coach Mike Jarvis said.
The hometown Red Storm, making their first NIT appearance since 1995, have won an NIT-record five championships, the last in 1989. Their season seemed to turn around after a 72-71 win over Duke on March 2.
“Any opportunity to have a chance to win a championship is golden to me,” Hatten said. “I looked forward to this my whole career.”
St. John’s has had a much easier road to the final than Georgetown. St. John’s has won all of its NIT games at home. Playing at Madison Square Garden is essentially a home game, and fans stormed the court after the win over Texas Tech.
The Hoyas turned down a bid to the NIT last season because they would have had to play on the road and miss classes. Now they’ll play for the title after winning four straight games in the tournament—all away from home. The Hoyas won at Tennessee, Providence and North Carolina before coming to Madison Square Garden.
Michael Sweetney scored 32 points in the Hoyas’ victory over the Golden Gophers.
His performance has spurred Georgetown’s resurgence. He has led Georgetown (19-14) in scoring in six straight games, and his 6-foot-8 frame provides an inside presence many teams cannot match.
“There’s nobody we can play, besides the Lakers, that I think we can’t exploit Mike on the inside,” Esherick said. “I think Mike has a unique talent. He has the ability to score on the inside. It’s very difficult for teams to matchup with him.”
Jarvis is again worried about having to stop Sweetney. The Red Storm won the earlier meeting this season 77-72 in Washington, but Sweetney scored 21 points. Jarvis said he wouldn’t let his team watch tape of Georgetown before the game because he was worried about the Hoyas’ size.
“I didn’t want our kids to see how big they are,” Jarvis said. “At that time, the ball wasn’t bouncing for them. It was almost like they were hexed for a while.”
Having two teams in the final perhaps is an even bigger statement for a conference that felt it deserved more teams in the NCAA tournament.
So far in postseason play, the Big East has done exceptionally well. Four teams in the NCAA tournament made the round of 16, and two teams are in the NIT final.
“Tomorrow when we wake up, we will be one of six teams that still has a chance to win a national championship,” Jarvis said. “I think it is incredible. In no time did they ever quit.”