St. John’s Showing Real Signs of ImprovementPosted by Brian Otskey on February 10th, 2014
It was not even a month ago, 24 days to be exact, that St. John’s was sitting at the very bottom of the Big East at 0-5 in league play along with Butler. At 9-8 overall and winless in the conference, panic was starting to set in amongst the fan base and some media folks who thought this year’s St. John’s team could contend for a high conference finish and make the NCAA Tournament. Fast forward to approximately 9:15 pm EST on Sunday night at Madison Square Garden and St. John’s had flipped the script after upsetting Creighton and moving to 15-9 overall and 5-6 in conference play after its sixth win in seven games.
The Red Storm locked down defensively in the second half, holding National Player of the Year candidate Doug McDermott (25 points, 10-18 FG) without one single shot attempt over the final eight minutes and 41 seconds of the game. “They did a good job of fronting him to make his catches tough,” said McDermott’s father and Creighton head coach Greg McDermott. St. John’s sophomore JaKarr Sampson did most of the heavy lifting for the Red Storm when it came to guarding McDermott, using his length, quickness and athleticism to frustrate the nation’s best player for most of the evening. “My mindset was to focus on defense,” Sampson told reporters after the game. Focus he did and it resulted in McDermott becoming frustrated and a non-factor down the stretch despite a hot start to the game for the Creighton senior. “Their length and their athleticism…it distracts you,” said Doug McDermott. “They did a great job of taking me away.”
Creighton started this game on fire, going 8-for-10 from the floor over the opening five-plus minutes of the game. “Things almost were too easy for us early, if that’s possible,” Greg McDermott said. But St. John’s took the opening punch and responded well, holding the Bluejays to 6-for-24 shooting for the rest of the first half. That allowed St. John’s to take a 40-36 lead into the locker room at halftime. The game seesawed back and forth for most of the second half but it was the Red Storm who asserted themselves in crunch time. D’Angelo Harrison, who led the Johnnies with 19 points, hit the dagger three pointer to put St. John’s up by two points with 2:10 remaining and then made five of six free throws to seal it. “D’Angelo relishes having the ball in his hands in crunch time,” said St. John’s head coach Steve Lavin. It was a very physical game where the officials let a lot of contact go both ways. Only 39 fouls were called in a game in which there could have been a lot more whistles. St. John’s clearly wanted to get physical with McDermott and Creighton and its toughness and athleticism clearly had an effect on the Bluejays’ shooting. “The idea (defensively) was to have a cumulative effect…to wear them down,” added Lavin.
With the win, St. John’s once faint NCAA Tournament hopes are starting to show signs of revival. This was a must-win game for its tournament resume but there is still plenty of work to do. After all, the Red Storm has just one win over a sure-fire NCAA team (this one against Creighton) and its second best win is against a Providence team that may have already peaked and looks like a bubble team at best. St. John’s did absolutely nothing out of conference and must have a strong finish to the Big East season if it wants to be even considered for a bid. After the game, Lavin was quick to squash any premature NCAA thoughts. “We haven’t accomplished anything of significance but we are playing better,” he said. With an RPI in the 60’s entering last night’s game, St. John’s is actually in a position to move up into bubble territory. However, a deeper inspection of its resume reveals few quality wins and a couple of bad losses that stand out. A win at Villanova two Saturday’s from now would bolster the Red Storm’s case even more but taking care of business against the rest of the Big East is paramount if St. John’s wants to be in the field of 68. Lavin’s team can’t afford any more bad losses to the likes of Butler or DePaul while games against Seton Hall, Georgetown and Marquette will either allow St. John’s to separate itself from the Big East pack or remain in the muddled middle of the conference. The win over Creighton was certainly a positive step forward for the Johnnies but their quest is really just beginning. In order to salvage its season, St. John’s will have to continue to play at this level for the entire rest of the way and through the Big East Tournament.