Mon, Mar 08, 2004 - Page 20 News List

Red Storm remains upbeat right to end against Notre Dame

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Kevin Clark took the stat sheet, crumbled it into a ball and tossed it aside as he began his postgame news conference Saturday.

It was a rare show of emotion and theatrics from Clark, the soft-spoken St. John's interim coach, but he had a point to make: the story of the Red Storm's final game this season and its journey the last few weeks could not be defined by a score.

He was only partly right. The official NCAA basketball box score he discarded showed still another lopsided defeat for St. John's, an 89-62 loss to Notre Dame, one last reminder of how far and how hard this program had fallen.

Ahead by only 6 points at halftime, Notre Dame kicked its offense into gear in the second half, outscoring the Red Storm, 50-29.

The Irish, clinging to a faint hope of making the NCAA tournament, made a team-record 17 3-pointers.

But as many games as this St. John's team might have lost, the eight remaining players on a roster diminished by suspensions and expulsions never seemed to quit on themselves or their team.

It was a point Clark was determined to drive home.

"I'm very, very proud of this team and glad I had the opportunity to coach them," said Clark, who took over Dec. 20 after Mike Jarvis was fired.

"I wish we went further so I'd have an opportunity to still be around them. Forget about basketball. They are amateurs, college basketball players, and that's what we should be talking about and writing about. These are college basketball players, and what's important is how they represented themselves and their university."

With five players expelled from the university or suspended from the team for at least a year for their roles in a trip to a Pittsburgh strip club, with another player thrown off the team for a marijuana arrest and with still another declared academically ineligible, St. John's was left with eight players for its last two games. Only four of the eight were on scholarship.

The Red Storm won one of their eight games after the Pittsburgh scandal, but even rival coaches were quick to compliment them for how hard they played.

"A team is about when you are down, you have somebody to pick you up," center Curtis Johnson said. "Coach Clark is one of the most positive coaches I have ever had. We'd come to practice and we'd be undermanned and understaffed. With all these negatives in front of us every day, we stayed together and worked as a team. That's more than most people would have done." Johnson added, "It takes real courage to get up every morning and stay positive and focus on what you have to do."

Clark is not considered a serious candidate to fill the coaching vacancy, so his affiliation with St. John's may be over.

He said he was not worried about his future.

"My future? Who cares?" he said. "It's not in my hands. My future is still to be able to teach in some way, whether it's in coaching as a head coach, an assistant coach or something else. My future is bright."

With a 1-15 record in the Big East, the Red Storm did not qualify for the conference tournament, which starts Wednesday.

Notre Dame improved to 16-11 and 9-7 in the Big East.

The Irish may need at least two victories in the Big East tournament to have a chance of making the NCAA tournament.

Chris Thomas led Notre Dame with 25 points. Daryll Hill was the leading scorer for St. John's, also with 25.

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