Lou Carnesecca’s last great team at St. John’s came up one game short of the Final Four in 1991.
“It was the culmination of three years of improvement,” center Robert Werdann said.
The Johnnies won the 1989 NIT and advanced to the second round of the 1990 NCAA Tournament.
“We thought we had a chance to win the whole thing,” center Shawnelle Scott told the Chronicle as it looked back to the classic season 30 years ago.
Scott himself had been a St. John’s fan who was captivated by the Redmen’s run to the Final Four in 1985.
“That’s where I saw myself. That’s where I wanted to be,” he said. “I wanted to try to add on to that program, to try and get back to that level.”
St. John’s won their first nine games and after a 15-2 start moved up to No. 5 in the national rankings.
The star of the team was junior forward Malik Sealy, who scored 22.1 points per game and hauled in 7.7 rebounds per game.
Sealy came to St. John’s from Tolentine High School in the Bronx, where he led the team to the state title.
Tolentine had defeated Werdann’s Archbishop Molloy team in the city title game.
“To unite was great,” Werdann told the Chronicle. “He was a great teammate.”
Guard David Cain said, “It was great seeing how his game progressed year to year.”
Cain said Sealy came back for his sophomore season with a pure jump shot.
“He just took that leap and kept getting better and better every year,” Cain said. “It was great playing with Malik.”
Scott said Sealy, who was killed by a drunk driver in 2000, was like a big brother.
“I was playing big-time college basketball with a lot of close friends and that was the best part about everything,” Scott said.
St. John’s went 5-5 in its final 10 regular season games, including a triumph over Seton Hall, the 500th victory in Carnesecca’s college career.
At the postgame press conference, the coach was asked his secret.
“No formula, good players,” he said. “Good players, or else I would have been gone a long time ago.”
Carnesecca, who was a popular figure also because of his personality and his ugly wardrobe — “Who wears sweaters for fashion, anyway?” Werdann said, was in his 23rd season as head coach of the Johnnies.
“Playing for Looie was magical, man. My humility was the one thing I got out of everything. Being humble. Being confident without being cocky,” said Scott, who is a coach at Millennium High School in Brooklyn. “I love him to this day.”
The class with Sealy and Werdann was Carnesecca’s last.
“This is it,” Werdann recalled the coach telling him during his recruitment. “After you guys are seniors, I’m gone.”
The center said the magnitude of that didn’t fully sink in at the time. “We were young men,” Werdann said. “It’s difficult to realize what it really all meant.”
St. John’s entered the NCAA Tournament as a four-seed. In the first round, they beat Northern Illinois 75-68. Then the Johnnies beat Texas 84-76 with Sealy, Jason Buchanan, Billy Singleton, Werdann and Chucky Sproling all scoring in double-digits.
Ohio State, the top seed in the Midwest Region, awaited the Redmen in the Sweet Sixteen. Led by Jimmy Jackson, the Buckeyes won 27 games. “I just remember the team being focused and confident,” Scott said. “Everything just clicked.”
Many were surprised when St. John’s pulled off the upset. Everyone was shocked by the Redmen’s offense in a 91-74 win.
All five starters scored in double-digits again. Sealy had a game-high 22 points and Werdann netted a career-high 21, making eight of nine field goals.
St. John’s shot 63 percent. Carnesecca, whose teams did not often put up such numbers, called the win a “Paganini,” referencing the Italian violinist of the early 1800s.
But then the Duke Blue Devils beat the Redmen 78-61 in the Elite Eight and went on to win the national title.
“It’s almost like we ran into a buzzsaw,” Scott said.
St. John’s lost in the first round of the 1992 NCAA Tournament and Carnesecca announced his retirement. The school has been back to the Elite Eight once, in 1999.
Scott says he runs into people who have fond memories of the 1991 squad.
“People know,” he said. “‘You went to St. John’s? Oh, I remember that team.’”