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Virgina Tech Beats St. John’s, Captures Holiday Festival Title Game, 81-67
By Richard Kagan

Virginia Tech handily beat St. John’s University in the 2008 Aeropostale Holiday Festival at Madison Square Garden.  In doing so, it gave notice that its defection from the Big East Conference five years ago was a way of moving onto bigger and better things.

The Hokies looked slow and sloppy in defeating Columbia University in the opening round, and then took St. John’s a bit more seriously and won with a second-half burst to pull away for the 81-67 win.

The Holiday Festival is a prestigious Christmas-time tournament (Dec 20-21) that packs a big dose of college basketball history.  St. John’s has won a tournament high 14 times dating back to the early 1950’s.  The Tournament has played host to such teams as UCLA, North Carolina, Princeton, and Georgetown. Players such as Bob Lanier, Oscar Robertson, and Bill Bradley have played on the Garden court.

This year, St. John’s squared off versus Marist College and Columbia University faced Atlantic Coast Conference member Virginia Tech.  The winners of each game faced each other the next day, while the losers of the first round met in the consolation game. It’s a version of college basketball boot camp where teams play the first game, prepare for the second opponent and meet the next day.

Each team came into the Tournament with key players sidelined due to injuries. St. John’s lost Anthony Mason, Jr. earlier in the season with a season-ending leg injury. Forward Justin Burrell was injured with facial fractures during practice just days before the game.  Marist took the court without veteran junior guard starter David Devezin.

The teams use this event as a “tuneup” before conference play begins just after the New Year.

St. John’s (9-1) used team speed, a more experienced bench, and rebounding to defeat Marist 65-44.  Virginia Tech (7-4) overcame a slow start to defeat a gutty Columbia Lions squad, 64-52. 

The Johnnies ran up and down the court, making pretty passes for scores to entertain the crowd of 4713 fans, in the first-half against Marist College. Sophomore Sean Evans had an excellent game scoring 19 points, and hauling in 13 rebounds for St. John’s.

Guard D.J Kennedy also had a double-double, scoring 11 points and grabbing 14 rebounds. Paris Horne, a talented guard scored 12 points and Rob Thomas, filling in for the injured Burrell, chipped in with 11 points and 6 rebounds.

“I thought our guys played pretty well,” said head coach Norm Roberts of St. John’s. “I thought we played well on the defensive end. I thought we did a good job of attacking the glass on the offensive end.”

The Johnnies out-rebounded Marist 52-45, and got 20 rebounds on the offensive glass. This led to scoring points in the paint, which St. John’s had a sizable margin of 38-18.

Neither team shot the ball particularly well. SJU shot only 34.7% from the floor. Marist, on the other hand was ice-cold in the second half, missing numerous shots. In fact, it didn’t score a basket until the halve was nearly half over, by then, the game was basically decided. St. John’s led 55-30 with 8:21 to play and coasted to the win.

Last season St. Johns’ had an inexperienced team with 8 freshman. This year, the team is more battle tested. “I think we are all somewhat more mature this year and fight through things a little bit better,” Roberts noted.

St. John’s advanced to play Virginia Tech in a re-match of last year’s Tournament Title game. This year, it was the same outcome. Virginia Tech (8-4) broke open the game with a 10-1 in the second half to take a 57-45 lead with 13:49 to go and were not headed. The Hokies won the game on the strength of A.D Vassallo’s 24 points.  Guard Malcolm Delaney had an outstanding tournament, scored 22 points in this game, and was named Most Valuable Player.  Delaney or Vassallo seemed to answer every St. John’s (9-2) charge with a big basket. Sophomore Jeff Allen scored 10 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. Seth Greenberg, Hokies’ coach, was named ACC coach of the year last season. He sensed that his team needed motivating and got them ready to compete against St. John’s. To play for a championship “you have to play hard and compete.”  He seemed pleased with his team’s effort. “We have to play with a chip, that’s who we are,” said Greenberg. Paris Horne led Red Storm with 14 points, Sean Evans scored 13 for the game.

Columbia faced Marist in the consolation game and won in a close, hard fought game, 63-58.

Senior guard K.J. Matsui came off the bench and scored 11 second half points to help the Lions win their fourth game of the season. Matsui hit three big 3 point shots down the stretch. Norwua Agho tallied a game high 13 points. Guard Niko Scott also scored 11 points for Columbia. Kevin Bulger, a junior guard scored 8 points in a reserve role.

The Lions were without two starters, Pat Foley, and Asenso Ampin, who missed the Tournament due to injuries. The Lions played tough defense and made enough key shots to hold off the Red Foxes. Senior Ryan Schneider led Marist with 16 points.

Matsui knew he would be called on to step up in the game. “I mean we were down by 10 by 12 points,” Matsui said. “Coach told me to play hard.” He and his teammates pitched in and came up with the win.

Joe Jones, Columbia head coach, was happy with his team’s play. “Down the stretch I thought we did a great job coming up with some loose balls and rebounds in some key times,” said Jones.#



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