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Rick Pitino says people ‘overreacted’ to his viral criticism, but surging St. John’s hasn’t lost since

Rick Pitino’s first season at St. John’s breaks down neatly into two acts with an obvious inflection point.

On Feb. 18, moments after the Johnnies blew a game against Seton Hall they once led by 19, Pitino criticized his team’s athleticism and toughness in comments that commanded national scrutiny. The back-breaking loss dropped St. John’s to a pedestrian 14-12 and left its dreams of a long-awaited NCAA Tournament return on life support.

But in the six games that followed Pitino’s controversial candor, the Red Storm surged. Thursday’s 91-72 victory over Seton Hall in the Big East Tournament quarterfinal marked their sixth win in a row and likely clinched their first March Madness berth since 2019.

That the pivotal triumph came against Seton Hall felt particularly poetic.

“I thought [the media] overreacted a little bit [to me] saying players are a little slow laterally and we’ve got to get stronger,” Pitino said Thursday, referencing the controversy.

“You should’ve seen what I said about some of my Kentucky players back in the day. I thought it was a little bit strange. … I said to my team, ‘Look, I apologize for hurting your feelings, but too damn bad. You’ve got to get quicker laterally and you’ve got to get tougher,’ and they did.”

Pitino, 71, previously said last month’s viral condemnation, during which he mentioned multiple players by name, was “staged” to be a wakeup call for his team. The Hall of Fame coach reiterated that sentiment Thursday after booking the Johnnies’ first trip to the Big East Tournament semifinal since 2000 for Friday’s meeting with No. 2 UConn.

“It’s something that I felt we had to do to win. I had to put them on notice … if they play that type of defense,” Pitino said. “My message to them was, ‘If you beat me, my teammate has got to cover for me,’ and they did tonight. … They got the message loud and clear by doing the right things.”

The Red Storm (20-12) look like a much different team since Pitino called them out. Their first ranked win of the season came exactly a week later, when they held then-No. 15 Creighton to 66 points. Thursday’s 91 points, meanwhile, matched the Johnnies’ second-highest scoring output of the season, trailing only the 104 they put up against DePaul earlier in their win streak.

The Red Storm are far less reliant now on point guard Daniss Jenkins and center Joel Soriano, who carried the bulk of the scoring load for much of the season.

On Thursday, six players scored in double-figures, including RJ Luis Jr., who led the team with 18 points, and Jordan Dingle, who averaged 15.2 points per game over the six-game win streak. A breakneck pace repeatedly allowed St. John’s to get to the basket for easy layups en route to 42 points in the paint.

The Red Storm’s resurgence in between those meetings with Seton Hall isn’t lost on the players.

“We’ve known what team we can be when we’re playing at that level, when we’re playing with that pace, when we’re trusting each other like that,” Jenkins told the Daily News after Thursday’s win. “We know what we can do. We just came out and proved to ourselves that we are who we think we are.”


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