NEW YORK -- During the first timeout he had called, a little more than 2 1/2 minutes into the second half yesterday at Madison Square Garden, Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun gave his top-ranked Huskies an earful. During the second, 24 seconds later, Calhoun said nothing.
Guards Ricky Moore and Khalid El-Amin did most of the talking.
"Some of the guys were getting a little panicky," Moore said of the 12-point deficit Connecticut faced against ninth-ranked St. John's. "We knew we had a lot of time left and we've been in this situation before."
The Huskies maintained their composure to get back in the game with 10 straight points, and remained the only unbeaten Division I team with a 78-74 victory. That delighted the vocal minority of Connecticut fans among the sellout crowd of 19,528 and disappointed the Red Storm in the same way that second-ranked Duke had here last Sunday in overtime.
Not since last month's comeback win at Pittsburgh, when they trailed by 16 points in the second half and won at the buzzer, had the Huskies been down by double digits.
"They're one of the more arrogant teams, but they just always back it up," said St. John's forward Ron Artest.
Connecticut (19-0, 11-0 in the Big East) did it by keeping St. John's from attacking the offensive boards as it had in the first half, when the Red Storm overcame a 16-3 deficit to take a 43-38 lead at halftime. And St. John's contributed to the Huskies' comeback by making only 10 of 33 shots in the second half.
"We had a chance to blow them out, but we didn't deliver the knockout punch," said first-year St. John's coach Mike Jarvis, who has revived this former Big East power. "We've been in position to beat every one of those teams, but we're not ready yet."
Connecticut again showed its resilience and junior forward Richard Hamilton demonstrated why he is among the favorites for national player of the year. It was the fourth straight game in which the Huskies came back from a halftime deficit. It was the 14th time that Hamilton led Connecticut in scoring.
Hamilton reached his season's average with 22 points, most of them coming early or late, to go along with eight rebounds and four assists. Junior forward Lavor Postell didn't start for the Red Storm, but finished with 23 points and 11 rebounds in 37 minutes.
"For all the games we lost my freshman year after leading in the second half, now we're in the other side of the boat," said Hamilton, the Big East's leading scorer and its reigning player of the year. "I couldn't get my shots to drop for a while, and I tried to do other things."
While they ended the game even hotter than they started -- making seven of their last eight shots, and nine of their last 11 -- it was more Connecticut's defense that clamped down on St. John's (17-5, 7-2). Especially the defense on Artest by Kevin Freeman and on Bootsy Thornton by Moore.
Artest, considered the league's rising star, finished with 14 points on four-of-12 shooting and didn't hit a shot after his three-pointer had given the Red Storm a 65-61 lead with 5: 41 to play. Thornton, his team's leading scorer, made only one shot in the second half -- a three-pointer for a 51-41 lead -- and finished with 15.
"It wasn't his [Moore's] defense," said Thornton, the former Dunbar star who had scored a career-high 40 against Duke Sunday. "It was not taking advantage of scoring opportunities. His defense wasn't a factor."
On the play that gave Connecticut the lead for good, neither was Thornton's. With the score tied at 65, Thornton failed to get upcourt to challenge Moore, who completed a two-on-one fast break with a pass to center Jake Voskuhl for a dunk. It typified what happened for both teams during the last five minutes.
Connecticut's next basket came after Artest missed, and Hamilton found El-Amin (15 points, six assists, no turnovers) for an easy layup. The Huskies then forced a shot clock violation, and Hamilton calmly buried a three for a 72-65 lead. Though the Red Storm had one last-gasp chance when Postell's three cut the deficit to 74-72 with 34.9 seconds left, Moore hit a pair of free throws.
"In the first half, they really kicked our butts on the backboards," said Calhoun. "But we found our old friend defense in the second half. It was out there somewhere."
For St. John's, a victory over a nationally ranked team is out there somewhere, too.
"We know we're good enough to beat anyone in the country," said Jarvis. "Eventually we will, and they know it."
Pub Date: 1/31/99