St. John's loses heartbreaker to Rutgers

St. John’s squandered a big opportunity Wednesday night.

With the chance to build on an upset of No. 14 Cincinnati and improve to 2-1 in Big East play, the Red Storm stumbled at home against Rutgers, losing 58-56 at Madison Square Garden.

“We’re the same group, the same team that made some plays down the stretch at Cincinnati to get a big win,” said St. John’s coach Steve Lavin. “And then this evening against Rutgers, we weren’t able to convert and get the stops and make the plays that allow you to win in the Big East.”

The Red Storm certainly had their chances. In a tight game that featured 14 lead changes, including 11 in the second half, St. John’s had two shots that would have put them in front in the final 10 seconds. Both were off the mark.

With Rutgers ahead 57-56, D’Angelo Harrison pulled up for a 3-pointer from the right wing with eight seconds remaining, but the shot wasn’t close.

Then, after Rutgers’ Mike Poole missed the second of two free throws, Jakarr Sampson pulled down the rebound and took the ball up the floor, but his 3-point attempt at the buzzer missed as well.

But where St. John’s really lost this game was at the foul line. The Red Storm made just 15 of 27 free throw attempts. Harrison had a game-high 20 points, but was just 8-for-12 from the charity stripe.

Three of Harrison’s four misses came in the final 3:31 of the game, including a miss with 33 seconds left and a chance to tie the game.

“Probably just a lack of concentration on my part,” Harrison said. “I’m one of the leaders of this team, so when the ball’s in my hands at the free throw line I have to convert.”

Rutgers entered this game in a very similar position to St. John’s. A young Scarlet Knights squad was looking to follow up a big win over a ranked opponent, in their case against No. 24 Pittsburgh.

Now Rutgers is 2-1 in Big East play, for the first time in seven years, and only the third time since joining the conference.

“Small steps,” said Rutgers coach Mike Rice. “There’s always a process in building programs. Yet (this is) very important, because 2-1, maybe you can get to 3-1, and that’s what good teams do. Good teams grind those type of games out.”

Rutgers’ leading scorer, sophomore guard Eli Carter, who was averaging 17.5 points per game, was limited to just eight points, on 3-for-14 shooting. But the Scarlet Knights got a big lift from the two seniors in their rotation, swingman Dane Miller and big man Austin Johnson.

Miller scored 11 points, all in the second half, and added six rebounds and three assists. Johnson doubled his scoring average, with 10 points off the bench.

“It’s nice to have seniors,” Rice said. “It’s nice to have guys who have been through the wars and respond the right way. In the second half, I thought both of those guys, Dane and Austin, did a tremendous job.”

St. John’s, on the other hand, doesn’t have a single senior in its rotation. And its only junior is reserve guard Marco Bourgault, who’s in his first year with the program.

Lavin admitted he thought his team looked uptight early in the game -- only their second of the season at the Garden. But he felt they bounced back nicely.

“All our goals were reached,” Lavin said. “We outrebounded them, we held Carter in check. ... But obviously what we didn’t anticipate was the degree of missed free throws, and that ultimately ended up coming back to cost us.”

In the end, only two points separated the squads.

But those two points make a world of difference.

Rutgers now hosts No. 21 Cincinnati on Saturday night, with a chance to get on the national radar with another win.

St. John’s, which lost its conference opener at Villanova in overtime a week ago, is just a couple of plays away from being 3-0.

Instead, the Red Storm are 1-2, with tougher games against No. 19 Georgetown and No. 17 Notre Dame on deck.

It’s only early January. But these two losses may really hurt come March.