The folks cloaked in red and white were there for a party. They were there in force — 16,127 of them — and they had joy on their minds. The Johnnies were on a roll. They’d snuck their way back into the draws of most of the prominent bracketologists. This stood as the perfect tune-up: a dress rehearsal on the same floor as the Big East Tournament, against a humbled rival from back in the day. They jumped to a 10-0 lead. 

All was well. 

All was loud. 

Except the Georgetown Hoyas, from there, and for the next 35 or so minutes, decided to channel Tony “Duke” Evers, Apollo Creed’s trainer from the first Rocky movies. 

“They don’t know it’s a damn show,” Duke might’ve put it if he were sitting there courtside. “They think it’s a damn fight!” 

There’s a chance this might be exactly what St. John’s needed. By the end, the party was back on again, and the Johnnies had their fifth straight win, 86-78 against a hard-luck Hoyas team that punched well above its weight class — and certainly played better than their 9-22 record. Whatever pressure was involved in this game, every ounce of it was on the Johnnies’ shoulders. There was no room for error here. They had to win the game. They won the game. 

Survive-and-advance arrived a little early this year. 

St. John’s won its must-win game over Georgetown. Robert Sabo for NY Post

“You always get the best of everybody because it’s Madison Square Garden,” Rick Pitino said. 

That only multiplies in the coming days when the Big East Tournament arrives there. But it also serves as a genuine opportunity for the Johnnies. Right now it seems that at the least, they’ve punched themselves a ticket to Dayton. But you never want to let the fickle nature of March take your own fate out of your own hands. Upsets happen. Bids get stolen. And if you’re one of the last four teams in — which seems to be the consensus — you’re who those bids get stolen from. 

So that means the next time St. John’s takes the floor at MSG —likely Thursday, against Seton Hall, pending Providence’s game against UConn on Saturday night — they will be playing exactly the kind of game they played Saturday: win, and you can exhale. Lose … and well, it’ll be too hard to inhale to worry even a little bit about exhaling. 

“We knew we had to come out and play a great game,” Daniss Jenkins said. “Keep our mindset on all the things they’re good at and try to take it away. And get better with every possession.” 

Rick Pitino’s squad has made a late run to have a chance at the NCAA Tournament. Robert Sabo for NY Post

Jenkins, as has been his custom most of the year, led the way. That 10-0 run to start the game? Eight of those points came from Jenkins, who finished with a team-high 23 points and seven assists. Jenkins is one of two St. John’s players who has tasted the NCAA, last year when he played at Iona. He desperately wants another bite of that apple. 

“If we can get there,” he said, “we can do some damage.” 

That’s for next week. This week is about surviving, both on the court and on the fringes of the brackets. The Hoyas played like a team working with the house’s money, and were still within five with a minute-and-a- half left. It may have been a little more nerve-wracking than the Senior Day crowd would’ve signed up for, but it ought to serve them well when the real money is on the table starting this week. 

Daniss Jenkins of the St. John’s Red Storm puts up a shot over Jayden Epps. Robert Sabo for NY Post

“We needed a game like this getting ready for the Big East tournament,” Pitino said, before the tone turned reverential speaking of that event: “We’re about to see one of the greatest events in all of college basketball.” 

With a chance to clinch their spot on the sport’s undisputed largest stage. 

“We have a chance to do this, which is why these guys came here,” Pitino said. “We’re making headway.” 

They’re also playing their best basketball at the absolute most critical time of the season. They have what any team in any sport could possibly want: control of their fate. At the end of the day, the Johnnies faithful had that party that it came for.