NEW YORK (AP) — St. John’s avoided the trap.
The 23rd-ranked Red Storm were playing their first game as a ranked team in more than 10 years and it was against DePaul, a team that has managed just one Big East win this season.
That is the perfect description of what are called trap games.
But Dwight Hardy continued his scoring streak with 21 points and St. John’s dominated the Blue Demons throughout a 76-51 victory Wednesday night.
“We know how important each game is,” D.J. Kennedy, one of 10 seniors on the roster, said. “In past years, we had letdowns in games like this. Not this team this year.”
First-year coach Steve Lavin knew what a loss would mean in a game like this. Suddenly the five wins over highly ranked teams would lose some luster. The number in front of the school name would be gone after one week.
“This is an example of a team developing a hard edge and maturity that will bode well for us coming down the homestretch into the postseason,” he said, referring to the NCAA tournament, which St. John’s hasn’t been a part of since 2002. “In a challenge like tonight we had to sustain a level of focus, effort and execution for the entire game. This was the biggest game of the year because there is a natural tendency of human nature to exhale and find distractions when you hit some benchmarks like the Top 25.”
The Red Storm certainly weren’t distracted.
Hardy, who came in averaging 26.0 points on 50 percent shooting, including 53.3 from 3-point range over the last five games, didn’t have to come up with any late-game heroics like he did Saturday in a 60-59 win over No. 4 Pittsburgh.
“We can win every game if we come out and play like we did tonight,” Hardy said, “and there’s no reason why we can’t.”
The Red Storm (18-9, 10-5 Big East) controlled the game inside, in transition and on the backboards to win for the eighth time in nine games, a streak that got them in The Associated Press Top 25 for the first time since November 2000.
Freshman Cleveland Melvin had 16 points for the Blue Demons (7-20, 1-14), who have lost 14 of 15. This was DePaul’s 29th consecutive loss to a ranked team and eighth this season.
“Did Carmelo do better than us tonight,” first-year DePaul coach Oliver Purnell said about Carmelo Anthony, the New York Knicks’ recent acquisition who made his debut with them Wednesday night. “Sorry you had to watch this. Give St. John’s all the credit in the world. They are playing real good basketball and there are no signs of a letup, something I would have liked to see.”
St. John’s used a 12-0 run — with Hardy and Kennedy each getting five points — to take a 33-14 lead with 3:08 left in the half.
Brandon Young hit a 30-footer at the buzzer to pull the Blue Demons to 37-22.
St. John’s started the second half on a 9-2 run for a 46-24 lead with 16:59 to play and it only got worse from there for DePaul, which trailed by as many as 30 points — 61-31 on a jumper by Hardy with 10:39 to play.
Paris Horne added 12 points and Kennedy had 11 points and 10 rebounds for St. John’s, which has won four straight over the Blue Demons, including a 90-82 triple-overtime game last season when Kennedy had 32 points, nine rebounds and seven assists.
“The team answered the bell in terms of the challenge of sustaining the level of play we’ve had in this stretch of eight games,” Lavin said. “We were able to build a comfortable lead and salt it away down the stretch.”
Hardy’s tightrope walk along the baseline and his underhanded scoop with 1.2 seconds to play gave the Red Storm the win over Pittsburgh, their fifth over a ranked team this season. All five of the teams — Georgetown, Notre Dame, Duke, Connecticut and Pitt — were ranked 13th or higher when St. John’s faced them.
The Red Storm’s 2-3 zone had DePaul frustrated about getting the ball inside and forced them to take long perimeter shots. The Blue Demons finished 17 of 55 from the field (30.9 percent).
“We didn’t have a player have a good game and the zone defense had a lot to do with that,” Purnell said. “That’s the best zone we’ve seen all year long. They’re playing with a lot of confidence offensively. Right off the bat they took a lot of starch out of us and we didn’t play with any poise.”
St. John’s, meanwhile, got the ball inside often and effectively, outscoring DePaul 42-18 in the paint. That also helped the Red Storm to 54.4 percent shooting (31 of 57) and they finished with a 43-29 rebound advantage.
It was the 500th game played at Carnesecca Arena, the 50-year-old on-campus gym. St. John’s is now 420-80 in the building named for its Hall of Fame coach, who retired in 1992 and was in the sellout crowd of 5,602.
“It was packed to the rafters for the first time this year and I even pointed it out to players during the game,” Lavin said.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)