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March 15, 2019

Learning To Breathe

As the 2019 Big East Tournament swings into the Semifinals, a new generation of young players gets to experience the aura of Madison Square Garden. Should the players feel the jitters, they are not alone. The stars who came before them know what they are going through.

Victory at hand, the Marquette Golden Eagles cheering one another on Thursday night, as they trounce the St. John's Red Storm, 86-54 to reach the Semifinals. (Photo: Dave Saffran/MSG Photos)

Even as a college player, John Wallace carried himself in a way that seemed beyond his years. Leading his teammates, he possessed a reservoir of cool in the most pressurized spots. Still, playing at Madison Square Garden in the Big East Tournament for the first time in 1993 stopped him cold.

“The air in The Garden makes you breathe differently,” says Wallace, who was the Knicks’ first round pick in 1996. “You know how in Denver the air is thin. In New York, the air is thick. That’s how it is at The Garden. There is an energy that is like nothing else.”

As the 2019 Big East Tournament heads into the semi-final round Friday night, a new generation of players is getting to sense this firsthand. With teams of cheerleaders and busloads of boosters on hand for each school, the Big East Tournament played at The Garden somehow blends the feel of an old-time college field house with big city intensity and glamour.

Villanova, the favorite and looking for a third straight Big East championship, will play No. 4 Xavier in a 6:30 p.m. game. No. 2 Marquette and No. 3 Seton Hall will follow, stepping into spotlight at 9 p.m. 


John Wallace, a former Knick known for his composure on the court, felt the nerves during his first encounter with Madison Square Garden as Big East player. “You have to experience it to know it,” he says. (Photo: George Kalinsky for Madison Square Garden)

Charles Smith appreciates what these young players are experiencing. Years before he became a Knick, he discovered the pressurized atmosphere of The Garden as a freshman with Pitt in

the 1985 Big East Tournament. “It’s a completely different kind of stage,” he says. “It threw me off. The excitement is high, and I got caught up in it. So did other players. You could even see it in their body language.”

Smith played his last Big East Tournament game in 1988 — the same year he was named conference Player of the Year. “The more you play at The Garden, you get better and better at it,” he says.

As for Wallace, in time he settled down, too. In 1996 he reached the semi-final round. What made the difference?

“My mom,” he says. “She came to the games, and when I looked over and saw her there, in The Garden, all was well.”

Let the cheers reign. Seton Hall’s Myles Powell soaks it all in at center court on Friday night, as his Pirates defeat the Georgetown Hoyas, 73-57, to head to the Semifinals. (Photo: Dave Saffran/MSG Photos)

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