St. John's hurts its chance to dance

With a golden opportunity to prove it belongs in the Big Dance, St. John's came up well short on Sunday.

Facing No. 20 Pittsburgh in front of 9,129 fans at Madison Square Garden, the Red Storm were manhandled by the Panthers, 63-47.

"Today I thought clearly Pittsburgh had the upper hand in terms of staying on the grind and methodically dismantling us," said St. John's coach Steve Lavin.

It was a game for 27 minutes and change. St. John's trailed by just 3 at intermission and even took a one-point lead early in the second half.

The Red Storm were still within three, 42-39, after Chris Obekpa drained two free throws with 12:11 remaining.

Then Pittsburgh took over. The Panthers went on a 13-2 spurt from there, as the Red Storm scored just one bucket during a stretch of 8 minutes and 31 seconds.

Pitt guard Tray Woodall's 3-pointer with 6:23 left was the dagger, pushing the lead to double digits for the first time, 53-41. The rest was essentially garbage time.

Woodall, a Brooklyn native and the Panthers' leading scorer, poured in a game-high 25 points, shooting 8-for-14 from the field and 4-for-7 from beyond the arc.

St. John's leading scorer, D'Angelo Harrison, shot just 1-for-12 from the field and finished with six points.

"It was just one of those nights," Harrison said.

Lavin credited Pittsburgh. "They had a good game plan defensively, in terms of taking away his air space, providing heavy help on screens, and they tagged him all night long in their coverage," Lavin said. "He was playing in a crowd the entire afternoon."

Harrison's teammates weren't much better. St. John's shot 18-for-57 from the field overall (31.6 percent) and 2-for-15 from 3-point range (13.3 percent). In the second half, the Red Storm were 0-for-8 from beyond the arc and committed 9 of their 12 turnovers.

"There were things that we could have done more effectively," Lavin said, "in terms of being more patient, and using better shot selection, and ball security -- when we did penetrate the ball into the lane, we didn't protect it."

St. John's was effective the few times it was able to get out on the fast break. But the half-court offense was woeful, too often breaking down into one-on-one play. The Red Storm's lack of a low-post scorer was never more glaring.

The 47 points was a season-low.

"We couldn't overcome the number of turnovers and the easy points in transition that allowed Pittsburgh to get," Lavin said. "And then I think their depth was a factor as well, in terms of wearing us down over the course of the game."

Pitt coach Jamie Dixon used 10 players, and nine of them played at least nine minutes. Lavin went with a seven-man rotation, plus three minutes for guard Jamal Branch, who returned after missing the past four games with a sprained MCL.

Branch, wearing a brace on his left knee, shot 0-for-2 and committed one turnover.

St. John's (16-11, 8-7 Big East), on the bubble when the day began, has a lot of work to do in terms of making the NCAA tournament.

A victory Sunday would have given the Red Storm their third win of the season against a Top 25 team. Instead they dropped to 2-5 against ranked opponents. And a 16-point loss at home is a stain on the résumé.

The players sounded well aware that they squandered a big opportunity.

"I felt like we could have won this game. Our team felt like we could have won this game. We just didn't execute down the stretch," said forward Jakarr Sampson, who scored a team-high 14 points. "We definitely felt like we let this one go."

Three regular-season games remain -- at Providence, at No. 25 Notre Dame and then No. 17 Marquette back at the Garden, 13 days from now.

Then comes the Big East tournament. And after that, who knows?

"It's clear that we have some work to do," Lavin said. "We need to get some wins both in the regular season and the conference tournament if we're going to continue to build a case or have an argument for us to be in the NCAA tournament."

Right now, the Small Dance -- the NIT -- appears far more likely.