DAYTON, Ohio -- No. 4 seed St. John's (21-8) built a 25-point lead in the second half but had to hold off a late rally by No. 13 Northern Illinois in taking a 75-68 victory yesterday in the first round of the Midwest Regional at the University of Dayton.
The Redmen (21-8) were runners-up in The Big East during the regular season, but had all they could handle against the Huskies (25-6), regular-season champions of the Mid-Continent Conference.
Northern Illinois, which received an at-large bid after being upset in the MCC tournament, shot 55.6 percent from the field in the second half. The Huskies had an opportunity to pull within four, but guard Donald Whiteside missed a three-pointer with 1 minute, 16 seconds left and his team trailing by 68-61.
"I did play a lot of minutes, and I couldn't get my legs under me my last couple of shots," said Whiteside, who missed three jumpers in the last two minutes. "We played a real good second half, but we missed a few shots at the end that really hurt us."
The Redmen, losers to Providence in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament, were out-rebounded, 38-27, despite superior height. Poor shot selection hurt St. John's during the late run by the Huskies.
"In the second half, we hit a low and it was impossible to sustain our intensity," St. John's coach Lou Carnesecca said. "I thought there was good ball control and patience on our part. Obviously we would have liked to knock them out, but we were glad to come away with the decision."
Four Redmen scored in double figures, with Jason Buchanan scoring 20 and Malik Sealy 19. Center Robert Werdann, whose status was questionable due to a bruised calf, scored 12 in 14 minutes.
Northern Illinois got 23 points and 12 rebounds by senior forward Donnell Thomas, who became the school's all-time leading scorer.
"He led our comeback," Northern Illinois coach Jim Molinari said. "We had a hard time coping with size and weight. It was a learning experience for me because this was my first NCAA tournament."