Commentary

Johnnies put the best behind them

St. John's won't face a team more talented than UK, which lived up to No. 1 ranking

Updated: December 6, 2011, 2:34 PM ET
By Kieran Darcy | ESPNNewYork.com

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- It was too much to ask, really.

St. John's knocking off top-ranked Kentucky? In front of 24,119 roaring fans at Rupp Arena? Without its head coach? And with six of the seven players in just their eighth Division I game, and very first away from home?

The question is, what does St. John's take from its 81-59 loss in Lexington on Thursday night?

[+] EnlargeAnthony Davis
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesKentucky freshman Anthony Davis dominated with 15 points, 15 rebounds and eight blocks.

"We learned a lot today about ourselves," said assistant coach Mike Dunlap, who was in charge as Steve Lavin continues to recover from prostate cancer surgery. "One [thing] is that we're a group that plays incredibly hard, and I think people can see that. So for me, just the camaraderie amongst them is good, rock-solid. I like that a bunch.

"And two is, we learned that we have to do a better job. We've been building a graph line on turnovers that's unacceptable. ... We're looking for eight or nine turnovers on the road, and we were at 19, and you give Kentucky some credit for that as well."

Nineteen turnovers was indeed a critical number. But the most important stat was Kentucky's 18 blocked shots -- a school record. The Wildcats came in leading the nation in blocks at 10.3 per game, but were even more potent against the Red Storm.

Freshman forward Anthony Davis -- who stands 6-foot-10 but has a wingspan seemingly twice that size -- swatted eight St. John's shots away, just one component of what was a stellar night for the young phenom. Davis also posted 15 points and 15 rebounds.

"It's like shooting over a tower," St. John's guard Nurideen Lindsey said.

"I wish we had one of those," Dunlap said.

St. John's (4-4) was level with Kentucky (7-0) for the first five minutes, unlike several other games this season when the Red Storm have fallen behind early. But then the Wildcats ripped off a 12-0 run to go up 16-5.

The Red Storm responded with a 7-0 run, cutting the deficit to 16-12. But the lead was back to double digits at intermission, 31-20. The lead quickly ballooned to 16 early in the second half, 38-22, and St. John's was never able to get it back within single digits.

Eventually the Wildcats simply wore down the undermanned Red Storm, leading by as many as 27 late in the game. St. John's had to scratch and claw for every point, while Kentucky made it look effortless at times, tossing alley-oop pass after alley-oop pass.

Dunlap declined to make excuses, despite the fact St. John's has such a short bench.

"Some people would be defensive about that. I'm not," Dunlap said. "We have seven guys that we're using in a rotation and you're coming in here trying to [win]. It makes it difficult, but not impossible."

On the bright side, forward God'sgift Achiuwa battled admirably against Kentucky's imposing front line. Achiuwa, who struggled in St. John's previous two games against ranked opponents, Arizona and Texas A&M, had a team-high 18 points and 10 rebounds.

Achiuwa was not afraid to challenge Davis, Terrence Jones (26 points, 9 rebounds) and the rest in the paint, and he displayed some nifty post moves.

Moe Harkless also had 16 points and 10 rebounds for the Red Storm.

The glaring weak spots were starting guards Lindsey and D'Angelo Harrison. Coming in, they were St. John's top two scorers, averaging a combined 28.7 points per game.

Against Kentucky, the pair contributed just six points between them, five by Harrison. They shot 2-for-12 from the field and committed eight turnovers.

"I think Kentucky played very good tonight," Lindsey said. "I don't necessarily think I had a tough time tonight. You just have to give credit to Kentucky. They played very good defense."

In fact, all three of the St. John's players who spoke with the media after the game -- Lindsey, Harrison and Harkless -- were dwelling on the positives, despite the 22-point loss.

"I think we played them pretty tough, actually," Harkless said. "We rebounded well." (St. John's did hang tough on the boards against a much bigger Kentucky squad, outrebounded only 48 to 43.)

"Kentucky is the No. 1 team in the country," Harrison said. "We were fighting. We were right with them in the first half."

Kentucky coach John Calipari was complimentary as well. "They played us as well as anybody has played us, they really did," he said. "I've got to give them credit."

Calipari starts three freshmen, but he also has the luxury of having three key players who were part of a Final Four run a season ago.

St. John's certainly does not have that in its arsenal.

There will be more growing pains, to be sure. But the good news is, the Red Storm won't face a more talented team the rest of the way. And there are plenty more games to be played.

"This team hasn't learned quite yet how to get in second gear," Dunlap said. "But we will."

Kieran Darcy is an ESPNNewYork.com staff writer. He joined ESPN in August 2000 after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, where he played four years of JV basketball.
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