Friday, February 14, 2014
St. John's climbs to .500 in Big East
By Kieran Darcy
NEWARK, N.J. -- If St. John’s wins in The Rock and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
The answer is yes. It wasn’t particularly impressive, but the buzz about the Red Storm will only increase after their 68-67 win at Seton Hall on Thursday -- even if just a couple hundred fans were in the building to witness it due to a nasty nor’easter.
St. John’s (16-9) has climbed from 0-5 in the Big East to 6-6 in the span of just three weeks, and now practically anything seems possible.
“This team is a special bunch,” guard D’Angelo Harrison said, “and we’re finding ways to win.”
They found a way Thursday despite a brutal first half in which the team eclipsed its turnover average (10.2) with 11 in just 20 minutes. Seton Hall had a 9-3 advantage on the offensive glass, a 14-5 edge in second-chance points, and led 38-33 at the break -- despite being without two starters, swingman Brian Oliver and power forward Gene Teague, who were suspended by coach Kevin Willard for attitude problems.
St. John’s coach Steve Lavin said it was the worst his team had looked since their first half at Georgetown on Jan. 4, when the Red Storm trailed 42-16 at intermission.
“It was a group of zombies that I didn’t recognize,” Lavin said, “because for over a month now we’ve been in a really good way and on a good path of progress and playing together as a team.”
St. John’s played better in the second half, but the game was still tied at 67 in the final minute. Seton Hall guard Fuquan Edwin, who scored a game-high 25 points, missed a decent look from the top of the key with 27 seconds remaining.
“I’ll live and die with Fu taking shots,” Willard said. “He’s a heck of a player, he’s giving all his effort. He’s been shooting 42 percent from the 3. It was good defense by them.”
The winning point came at the foul line -- from Chris Obekpa, of all people. A fitting end to a strange night.
St. John’s ran the clock down, with the chance to take the last shot in regulation. Harrison, the team's leading scorer, was the primary option, naturally. But Obekpa was open in the lane after setting a screen for Harrison, and freshman point guard Rysheed Jordan hit Obekpa with a pinpoint pass. A 40.7 percent free throw shooter, Obekpa made one of two from the foul line, and then St. John’s intercepted a long baseball pass to seal the victory.
“He’s as exceptional a passer as any player I’ve coached, for this stage of a career,” Lavin said, of Jordan. “The judgments, the precision is first-rate.”
It was fitting that Jordan and Obekpa teamed up for the game-winning play, because the improved performance of those two players has been the key to the Red Storm’s resurgence. Each scored 10 points in the game, two of four St. John’s players in double figures. Harrison led the way with 12, and Sir’Dominic Pointer also scored 10 off the bench.
It was yet another balanced effort, from a team clicking on all cylinders right now -- Thursday’s first half notwithstanding.
St. John’s notched its first road win versus Seton Hall in 16 years, and is now firmly in the NCAA tournament at-large bid conversation, despite a hellish start to conference play.
“I’d put this group up there with as special as any that I’ve worked with,” Lavin said, “because of their resiliency, their pluck, their spirit, their fight-back, their gumption.”
Next up is a rematch with Georgetown on Sunday -- a chance for redemption, against a team that handed St. John’s its worst loss of the season six weeks ago.
“[Getting to] .500 is still not good enough for us,” Harrison said. “We gotta get past this game and get ready for Georgetown [on] Sunday. That’s a big game.”
They’re all big now, thanks to this remarkable three-week run -- capped off by a gutty victory in a nearly empty Prudential Center.