SJU shows some improvement vs. Wagner

NEW YORK -- St. John's has its first win of the season, and plenty of work to do.

The Red Storm held off pesky Wagner on Friday night in their home opener at Carnesecca Arena, letting an 18-point first-half lead trickle down to six with under four minutes remaining, before polishing off a 73-57 victory.

Coach Steve Lavin focused on defense this past week, after St. John's gave up 86 points to Wisconsin. And it was definitely improved, albeit against a lesser opponent. Wagner shot just 35.5 percent from the field (22-for-62), and 30.4 percent from beyond the arc (7-for-23).

"I thought we made progress tonight in all of the areas that needed to be addressed coming off the Wisconsin loss," Lavin said.

D'Angelo Harrison carried St. John's offensively, scoring a game-high 25 points. Harrison was 0-for-4 from 3-point range, but showed off an improved midrange game, hitting a couple of nice pullup jumpers. He also drove to the basket effectively and got to the foul line, where he drained all 11 of his free-throw attempts.

"He's hard to guard," said Wagner coach Bashir Mason. "He just finds ways to score, or get to the free-throw line. Every big basket they needed, he'd want it, and he'd come up with it."

Harrison has now scored 52 points in two games, after being suspended for the final six games of last season. "The guys do a good job of swinging the ball," Harrison said. "It's great to be back."

Lavin said he's not surprised by Harrison's hot start. "I am pleased with the progress from a maturation standpoint, on and off the court," Lavin said. "He's making good decisions, good reads, he's playing with a purposeful poise, and providing a steady hand in terms of leadership with this group."

Harrison has been great, but through two games, freshman guard Rysheed Jordan has been anything but. Jordan started but went scoreless against the Seahawks, shooting 0-for-7 from the field.

Jordan is Lavin's biggest recruit to date at St. John's -- ranked among the top 20 high school seniors in the country by ESPN -- and was expected to be a major contributor this year.

Lavin said he's not surprised by Jordan's early struggles, either.

"At this level, I've never had a freshman that didn't have some degree of a learning curve," Lavin said. "I thought he missed some bunnies inside, but they weren't bad shots, he just didn't pay 'em off or finish. But I’m impressed with his overall development. I look at his poise, and what he's doing in practice, and learning how to play off his teammates. And yet like our team, he's emblematic, we have a long way to go."

They do indeed. St. John's as a whole did a great job attacking the tin and drawing contact, earning 36 free throws and making 29 of them. Wagner couldn't handle them inside, and couldn't earn nearly as many freebies at the other end, shooting just 6-for-9 from the foul line.

That said, the Red Storm shot 0-for-10 from beyond the arc, and you're not going to beat many good teams without knocking down a few treys.

Lavin said he'd like to have five guys score in double figures. Only three did Friday night -- after Harrison, JaKarr Sampson scored 13, and Sir'Dominic Pointer chipped in 10. Sampson, last season's Big East Rookie of the Year, took just seven shots. He needs to be more aggressive, and St. John's needs to get the ball in his gifted hands more often.

St. John's needs a little more from Sampson, a lot more from Jordan, and improved play from some others as well. But it's only mid-November, and it's a team working in two new key pieces (Jordan and forward Orlando Sanchez). The time to work out the kinks is now, with the team's next 10 games also being played in the five boroughs, most against teams from mid- and low-major conferences.

"We're trying to take care of business at home, and then enter Big East play, try to be in good position, and hopefully Top 25," Harrison said.

They're not there yet.

But they can get there.