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Garden-variety woes hurt St. John's

NEW YORK -- It's the kind of scenario a player dreams of.

Madison Square Garden. Two seconds left. Your team trails by a point, and you're standing at the foul line. Two makes, and your team goes home a winner.

St. John's guard Nurideen Lindsey found himself in that position on Friday, in just his fifth Division I game, and only his second at the Garden.

And the dream scenario turned into a nightmare.

Lindsey's first attempt fell well short. His second rimmed in and out. And just like that, the Red Storm had endured their second excruciating defeat in two nights, falling to No. 18 Texas A&M 58-57.

Lindsey was not made available to the media after the game, but St. John's coach Steve Lavin shared with reporters what he told Lindsey immediately afterward.

"I said I've been in the game long enough and coached enough games to know there'll be a better day," Lavin said. "And that what gets amplified are the last two free throws, because they appear more significant because it's the end of the game -- it's what people are gonna talk about, which is natural. But as a coach, you understand that there were things from start to finish that put us in a situation where it took two free throws to try to win a game."

There certainly were other problem areas Lavin could point to. Less than 24 hours after coughing up an eight-point lead with just over seven minutes to play against No. 16 Arizona, St. John's came out flat against Texas A&M, trailing 23-12 with 7:53 left before intermission.

The Red Storm clawed back to within 32-30 at the break, but then allowed the Aggies to start the second half on an 8-0 run, extending the lead back to double figures.

"That's been a pattern with this team that we've tried to address," said Lavin, whose squad has had to recover from early deficits in all five games it's played so far -- even the three wins last week at Carnesecca Arena against William & Mary, Lehigh and UMBC. "For a young team that lacks depth and is undersized, it's gonna be tough enough for us, even if we don't constantly have to deal with these deficits.

"And then when you're playing Top 20 teams -- experienced teams that are rugged and highly skilled and talented -- you're gonna come up like we have, with two straight losses that are disappointing."

Lavin mentioned that he has moved up the team's pregame meal from four hours before a game to three hours, to try to jump start the team. He also inserted freshman guard Phil Greene into the starting lineup for the first time Friday, in place of junior Malik Stith, hoping to give the team a boost.

"We came out with a lot of fight in the second half," said Greene, who finished with 10 points and three steals. "That's how we've been playing the whole year. This team is real scrappy, we just keep crawling back, and eventually we'll win those games."

After Thursday night's defeat, Lavin pinpointed turnovers as another big concern. St. John's had 17 of them against Arizona.

On Friday, Lavin was unhappy with his team's free throw shooting -- and not just Lindsey's. The Red Storm had an incredible advantage in attempts from the foul line, shooting 38 versus just three for the Aggies. But St. John's converted on just 22 of them (57.9 percent).

"Both games down the stretch, we weren't able to put away an opponent because of something that we can control," Lavin said.

St. John's now takes a step back down in competition, hosting St. Francis (N.Y.) and Northeastern next week. In fact, the Red Storm will not return to the Garden until Dec. 17, when they face Fordham.

St. John's suffered a stunning defeat at the hands of Fordham last year -- a loss that Lavin says was one of the key turning points in what ended up being a successful 21-12 season.

He hopes these two losses at MSG can be the same. "These are the kind of games that you can grow from," Lavin said.

With such a young squad, every game equates to a growth spurt, win or lose. And the coach had to like the way Lindsey's teammates spoke up for him after an opportunity to be a hero turned into a stay at Heartbreak Hotel.

"You can't just blame Nuri; everybody missed free throws," freshman D'Angelo Harrison said. "I missed two free throws, so I feel like I lost the game."

"We have a lot of confidence in Nuri," Greene said. "We know if he gets that opportunity again, it'll come natural to him, because he's been in that situation.

"He'll be ready next time."