St. John's season ends with stunning loss

NEW YORK -- St. John’s 2013-14 season was a disappointment.

Its final game was an embarrassment.

After failing to reach the NCAA tournament, the Red Storm were awarded a No. 1 seed in the NIT. Two days later, they were beaten handily by No. 8 seed Robert Morris, at home no less, 89-78.

Losing to Robert Morris is forgivable -- the Colonials were the regular-season champs in the Northeast Conference and upset Kentucky in the first round of last year’s NIT.

It was the manner in which St. John’s played that leaves such a sour taste. (At least only 1,027 fans showed up to see it.)

The Red Storm trailed 19-2 less than five minutes in, 43-18 late in the first half, and 68-42 with eight minutes and change remaining, before making a late run to make the score look somewhat respectable.

“I thought Robert Morris came out and beat us to the punch in every phase of the game,” St. John’s coach Steve Lavin said. “Tonight was disappointing because we didn’t bring forth the effort or purposeful play that would have allowed us to be competitive.”

Starting point guard Rysheed Jordan did not play due to tonsillitis, but it probably wouldn’t have mattered. St. John’s biggest problem in this game was defense -- specifically, allowing Robert Morris to shoot 16-for-32 from beyond the arc.

Senior guard Karvel Anderson, the NEC Player of the Year, went off for 38 points, shooting 9-for-15 from 3-point range. Junior forward Lucky Jones added 25, making six of 12 shots from deep.

“We did talk about St. John’s ability to block shots,” said Robert Morris coach Andy Toole. “We felt that if we could get into the teeth of their defense and collapse their defense and be able to kick out, we’d have some opportunities at good shots.”

“We just followed the formula,” Jones said. “Coach just continued to say change sides, screen bodies, they’re a one-side defending team.”

“A lot of people don’t feel like the NIT is worth their time,” Anderson said. “We think differently.”

The Colonials were upset in the NEC championship game by Mount St. Mary’s last week but have now won 22 games despite losing four players to suspension in late January, including their third-leading scorer. Robert Morris dressed only eight players against St. John’s and lost reserve forward David Appolon late in the first half due to injury.

St. John’s overcame some adversity this season as well, bouncing back from an 0-5 start in the Big East and playing through the deaths of people close to three players.

But the Red Storm didn’t show up for what turned out to be their season finale. Leading scorer D'Angelo Harrison scored just nine points, shot 3-for-13, and sat the bench down the stretch. JaKarr Sampson had an inconsequential 11. Chris Obekpa and Sir'Dominic Pointer went scoreless, and Phil Greene had just three points, shooting 1-for-10.

Lavin gave little-used Max Hooper an opportunity, searching for a spark, and he was ready to play, shooting 6-for-12 from 3-point range and scoring a career-high 18. Jamal Branch, starting for Jordan, scored a career-high 22 -- but 20 of them were in the second half, including four 3-pointers in the final minute when the outcome was already decided.

“It’s very disappointing. We had a chance to play all our games in the NIT here,” Branch said. “I feel like we didn’t give it our all out there, until the last seven minutes of the game.”

“I think there was some frustration about not making the NCAA tournament, but at the same time, before the game I felt a good energy, I felt a good vibe,” Hooper said. “And then once they got off to that hot start I saw a dip in our energy, and ultimately the game was lost at that point already.”

Branch and Hooper were the two St. John’s players made available to the media after the game.

Lavin admitted he saw this coming, at least to some degree.

“Coming off the disappointment -- naturally our goal was to play in the NCAA tournament,” Lavin said. “With a quick turnaround from Sunday to Tuesday, we just didn’t have the verve, the purpose, the pluck, the energy that’s necessary to win at this stage of the season.”

When asked to assess the season overall, Branch said, “Very disappointed. Our goal was to make the NCAA tournament, do good in the Big East, and we were short of that.”

St. John's finished 20-13 overall after losing four of its final six games.

“This older group went from 13 wins to 17 wins to 20 wins, so that’s clear progress,” Lavin said. “We’ve made progress, but I think we’re disappointed that we didn’t make the NCAA tournament, and then we didn’t show well tonight in the NIT.”

The actual progress St. John’s made is a topic for debate. But one thing is not.

“We didn’t show well tonight in the NIT” is a gross understatement.