The outside might not have thought of Wednesday night's matchup between the St. John's basketball program and the Villanova Wildcats as a 'must win' for the Johnnies, but the team sure did.
The Red Storm had dropped three consecutive games and while most NCAA Tournament projections still had Rick Pitino's squad safely in the field, the Hall of Famer knew his team could not go into Xavier next Wednesday night on a four game losing streak.
"We knew how important this game was," Pitino said after the 70-50 victory. "We aren't going to bullsh-- you guys...we had to get this game."
"We played this game as if everything was on the line for the season."
St. John's jumped out to a 15-point lead, 28-13, in the first half before Villanova was able to get the game within five points, 40-35, midway through the second half, but had no answers for the Johnnies down the stretch.
"I told them, 'This is the game tonight. This is the game...If you six seniors want to play in the [NCAA] Tournament, you must get this game.' And they responded in a big way," the Hall of Famer explained.
It was the Red Storm's first season sweep of the Wildcats since the 1992-93 season and the first time the Johnnies held Villanova to 50 points or less since 2003.
"We know that every game we play there is a lot of significance to it in terms of our postseason potential," Jordan Dingle said, who made his return after a two game absence due to COVID with 12 points, four rebounds, and four assists.
Assuming the bottom doesn't fall out from underneath St. John's in the next month, all indications are that this team will be playing in the NCAA Tournament and have a legitimate chance to advance beyond the Round of 64 for the first time since 2000.
"They want to win so badly, and I want to win so badly for them," Pitino added. "I want to see these guys get to a tournament. They are the type of people that earn it, deserve it."
Not only do the players deserve it, but the fans as well.
It's like New York Jets or Giants fans yearning in September for meaningful football in December, just for the mere hope of reaching the playoffs, only to be bruised and battered by Thanksgiving with all attention turned towards the NFL Draft.
St. John's fans have that same desire in November for meaningful basketball in February and the writing is usually on the wall in January that they will be watching other Big East teams have success during the best time of the season and waiting for the next transfer portal entry.
But not this year. Not with this team and with this coach. They are built for March and look every bit like an NCAA Tournament team. It's beatdown of Villanova was just the latest example.