St. John's has fallen to Duke roadblock before

December 05, 1991|By Neil Best | Neil Best,Newsday

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- For Duke, they merely were way stations on the road to Final Four showdowns with Nevada Las Vegas. For St. John's, they were roadblocks.

March 18, 1990: Duke 76, St. John's 72. A key technical foul on Billy Singleton leads to a second-half meltdown by the Redmen in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

March 24, 1991: Duke 78, St. John's 61. Jason Buchanan gets into foul trouble, Rob Werdann gets injured, and the Redmen fall apart in the NCAA Midwest Regional final.

Dec. 5, 1991: In the final game of the final ACC-Big East Challenge tonight, St. John's gets its chance for revenge, meeting Duke at 9 p.m. at Greensboro Coliseum.

Six current St. John's players were there both times Duke ended the Redmen's season. They are looking forward to this.

"I'd like to play Duke, if they were the last-ranked team," guard Chucky Sproling said. "It doesn't matter to us if they're the first- or 25th-ranked team."

"I think everybody, on the inside, has a little special intensity toward them," guard David Cain said. "Everybody was glad to see we were playing them when the matchups came out."

"So far, we've been playing [underdog] teams looking to grab what we have," Malik Sealy said. "Now, we have to take what Duke has."

The Blue Devils are ranked No. 1 in the AP poll, are the defending national champions and have been to five of the past six Final Fours. Losing to Duke near its home turf would be no disgrace, but winning would be a huge boost. Either way, the experience should benefit the Redmen in the long run.

"This game can be an adrenalin game," coach Lou Carnesecca said. "It'll open up your arteries."

Neither team has faced a top opponent thus far. Duke (2-0) routed East Carolina and Harvard, and No. 7 St. John's (3-0) has beaten Niagara, North Carolina-Wilmington and Drexel, looking better each time out.

"To me, it'll be a great game for both teams," Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "I think we'll both learn from it. It's a real good old coach and a good young coach one who likes Polish sausage and one who likes great Italian food."

Well, OK, so St. John's should have an edge in coaching quips, but the rest of the matchups could be tricky.

Duke doesn't have a small forward as established as St. John's Sealy, but Thomas Hill, Grant Hill and Brian Davis give the Blue Devils a formidable array of athletic scorers. At point guard, Duke's Bobby Hurley and St. John's Jason Buchanan both are extremely polished and reliable.

Duke may have an edge up front, where 6-foot-11 senior Christian Laettner, who has recovered from a recent foot injury, is one of the best big men in the nation and 6-11 freshman Cherokee Parks is headed in that direction. St. John's Werdann and Shawnelle Scott will have to excel.

"I don't like to look back on things," Werdann said when asked whether his injury-plagued, four-point effort in March will motivate him. "I think it's OK to try to learn from our mistakes, but not to wonder, 'If this had happened, maybe this might have happened.'"

Ultimately, what sank St. John's was its inferior bench. This time, the Redmen may have the advantage there. Look for two newcomers, junior forwards Lamont Middleton and Mitchell Foster, to play key roles.

"It's amazing having them in there, either one or together," Werdann said. "They seem like they've been playing under Coach Carnesecca forever."

But they didn't play the last two times St. John's met Duke. That may be a blessing in disguise.

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