At Big East tournament, the Rick Pitino Experience was in full bloom

At Big East tournament, the Rick Pitino Experience was in full bloom

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

NEW YORK — This was the promise, right? Rick Pitino in Madison Square Garden and everything that comes with it. And Friday night, when St. John’s faced Connecticut in the Big East semifinals, that included a game, an argument between Pitino’s buddy and U-Conn. Coach Dan Hurley, then Pitino stumping for his players to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.

Remember a month ago when Pitino shredded these very same St. John’s players, noting they had no toughness or lateral quickness? His players were so unathletic they couldn’t guard anyone without fouling. Some were slow, others weak, and the whole roster had driven Pitino past disappointment — so far past that he called coaching the Red Storm “the most unenjoyable experience of my lifetime.” Funny how March (and a few wins) can change a man’s perspective.

“Well, your paper said we’re going to the Big Dance,” Pitino said, laughing, to a reporter after St. John’s lost, 95-90, to No. 2 U-Conn. That settled the Red Storm’s record at 20-13 (11-9 in the league). “So why would I have nerves? I mean, if the New York Post is not the Bible, who am I going to believe?”

“I want to see who we’re going to play, obviously, and prepare and get ready,” the 71-year-old coach continued. “You know, we played a really tough schedule this year, guys. Really tough schedule. We haven’t had too many easy games, and we’ve played Marquette twice tough. We beat Creighton, should have beat them on the road. With the exception of Seton Hall at Seton Hall, we’ve played really well in the Big East. Big East is a hell of a conference, as you know.”

Before Friday, St. John’s had won six straight after Pitino had tore into his team. That run made the tournament a possibility. It also allowed Pitino to frame those comments as a motivational tactic and not have his nose grow.

But the Huskies, the defending national champions, are a different beast. At the start of the second half, U-Conn. pulled away, then held off a final push by raining threes. Guards Cam Spencer and Tristen Newton combined for 45 points. If St. John’s fans groaned, if they made any noise, they were muted by a crowd favoring U-Conn. in the Red Storm’s backyard. Pitino, stalking the sidelines, black suit buttoned till the very end, watched his squad hang by a thread until it couldn’t anymore. And then his wait for Sunday, for the 68-team bracket, began.

“I’ve been in this situation where you have to win 8 out of 10 — you have to win six, seven in a row — a lot in my life,” Pitino said. “That’s what happens when you’re old and you’ve coached a lot. … But it’s really about them. I live vicariously through them. And I think on Selection Sunday, they’re going to get some nice things happen to them. I think they’re a dangerous team.”

Hurley agreed St. John’s is a tournament team — he’s just not certain where they should be seeded. In the meantime, his U-Conn. team will play Marquette in the Big East final at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday. But that’s not what everyone wanted to hear about after the Huskies beat St. John’s. No, they wanted to know what happened with that fan.

Twelve minutes into the game, Pitino received a technical for arguing a foul call. Hurley immediately received one, too. But that’s when the facts give way to competing stories. At the center of the drama was Tom O’Grady, a longtime friend of Pitino’s sitting courtside by the St. John’s bench. Hurley and O’Grady yelled at each other. Right after the halftime buzzer, Hurley seemed to attempt to have O’Grady ejected, though after disappearing for a bit, O’Grady retook his seat a few minutes into the second.

There were no more arguments from there. But when Hurley passed near O’Grady going through the handshake line, three security guards circled around Pitino’s bald pal. Better safe than sorry.

“There was a short guy in a red blazer that was on the court yelling at the refs, and then he started yelling at me, you know, and moving in my direction,” Hurley said, referring to O’Grady in his version of events, with the tiniest of grins. “So I was just kind of pointing out to [the referee] that he was behaving worse than Coach Pitino. I was really just trying to help the officials, you know. They might not have seen it. And then I got a technical for pointing out more increasingly aggressive fans. At courtside you shouldn’t end up on the court.”

Did he try to have O’Grady ejected?

“I kept him in. They were going to eject him from the game,” Hurley said, his act warming up without a hitch. “I went over there to tell the ushers I wanted him to stay. Not because I thought he was a good guy. I thought it might be bad luck. Karma. Not because I, you know …”

Asked what he shouted at Hurley, O’Grady said only that Hurley was too far outside the coaching box, nothing else. Asked what O’Grady shouted at him, Hurley said it was “a lot of expletives.” Asked if Hurley tried to have him ejected, O’Grady said he didn’t want to talk about it. Pitino added that O’Grady has “psychological problems” with refs.

Just another Friday night at the Big East tournament.

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