St. John's marquee players D'Angelo Harrison and JaKarr Sampson totaled 46 points in a 77-60 win over St. Francis (Brooklyn) Saturday night at Barclays Center. But it's quickly becoming evident that the presence in the paint of 6-9 shotblocker extraordinaire Chris Obekpa might be equally valuable to the Red Storm heading into Big East play in January.
Obekpa scored only four points but had nine blocks, seven rebounds and five assists. That gave him 20 blocked shots in the past two games, and he obviously discouraged the Terriers (2-7), who shot 31.3 percent from the field, 26.7 percent after halftime.
Coach Steve Lavin inserted the freshman in the starting lineup to see what it looked like. "It felt right," Lavin said. "He was coming off a strong performance. We're tinkering with our zone. With him at the rim, it's almost like a soccer goalie. It changes the game . . . The five assists shows he enjoys the selfless aspect."
The Red Storm (8-3) won for the sixth time in the past seven games. St. John's has one non-conference game remaining against North Carolina-Asheville, and there will be more experimentation because transfer point guard Jamal Branch will be eligible for the first time. But the pieces are starting to fall into place.
Harrison had 25 points, six rebounds, five assists and three steals, and Sampson had 21 points and 12 rebounds. Sir'Dominic Pointer added 12 points. Jalen Cannon led St. Francis with 14 points.
"I was pleased with our willingness to make the extra pass," Lavin said. "Having 19 assists against eight turnovers was a strong indicator of willingness to feed the open man. Our defensive pressure wore St. Francis down over the course of the game."
The Terriers led 16-9, but St. John's took control with a 29-10 first-half run that included 10 points from Harrison and seven from Sampson to make it 38-26. It slipped to five points early in the second half, but St. John's regained control as Harrison hit two three-pointers in a row and Obekpa got out to the perimeter to block a three-point shot by St. Francis.
"I've never had a team this big in my life," Harrison said.
Referring to Obekpa's shotblocking, he added, "It makes us pressure the ball more full-court, knowing we have shot-blocking behind us."
Obekpa, who came to prominence in high school at Our Savior New American in Centereach, recalled how he developed an affinity for blocking shots as a kid in Nigeria. "I loved it, so I kept doing it," he said. "It's a part of me now."
Better yet, now it's a part of St. John's defense.
Notes & quotes: Commenting on St. John's decision to join six other basketball-only Catholic schools in leaving the Big East to form their own conference, Lavin said, "Now there will be a new version of the Big East. St. John's will be positioned to be successful long after I'm the head coach."