NEW YORK -- It was an ugly win, with a major bright spot.
St. John’s had to scratch and claw its way past Holy Cross on Thanksgiving Eve. But Red Storm freshman Jakarr Sampson looked like an emerging star, dazzling the 4,030 fans at Carnesecca Arena who watched a 65-53 victory.
With the win, St. John’s improves to 3-2, after suffering back-to-back losses to Murray State and Baylor at the Charleston Classic last weekend.
Eight days ago, in the season opener against Detroit, Sampson scored just two points, shooting 1-for-7 from the field.
Wednesday night, Sampson was the best player on the floor, with 20 points, seven rebounds and three assists.
"His poise, his maturity is developing right before our eyes," said St. John's coach Steve Lavin.
The 6-foot-8, 204-pound Sampson arrived in Queens with the reputation of being a freakish athlete, who would be an electric finisher on the fast break. But on Wednesday Sampson displayed a potent jump shot -- with the ability to pull up in transition, or face-up after receiving the ball in the post, and knock it down.
Sampson said he’s been dedicating a lot of practice time to his perimeter game. “I really wanted to work on my shot, so I could have the respect of other players who try to play off me,” Sampson said.
The hard work has clearly paid off. Sampson connected on 10 of his 15 field goal attempts against Holy Cross. And St. John’s needed someone to step up on a night when leading scorer D’Angelo Harrison, the team’s resident marksman, shot just 6-for-18.
If Sampson can develop into a reliable second scorer, St. John’s will be a much more dangerous team going forward.
There are still reasons to worry. St. John’s fell behind by nine in the first half, giving up easy baskets to a Holy Cross team that came in shooting 33.9 percent from the field. That ranked the Crusaders 342nd out of 347 Division I squads.
This game was tied at halftime, and Holy Cross remained within striking distance until the final couple minutes. The Red Storm tightened up the defense in the second half, increasing their ball pressure, but the Crusaders still outrebounded them, 35-31.
"I think our lack of size would be my biggest concern," said Lavin.
St. John’s is still waiting to hear back from the NCAA on the eligibility of junior college transfer Orlando Sanchez, a 6-foot-9 power forward who could really help the Red Storm on the boards. But as the days continue to pass, it appears more and more unlikely that Sanchez will suit up for St. John’s this season.
Sampson, on the other hand, will be in the lineup every night (barring injury). And Lavin thinks he can have as much impact on this team as Moe Harkless, last season’s Big East Rookie of the Year, now with the NBA’s Orlando Magic.
"He's got a wonderful spirit and energy as a person," Lavin said. "But then we also see that in his game, in terms of, he plays the game as though he has springs under his feet."
Sampson sprung St. John’s to a victory Wednesday night. Not bad for a guy in just his fifth college game.