Jamal Branch gives St. John's another offensive option

St. John's Jamal Branch (0) goes up against

St. John's Jamal Branch (0) goes up against Notre Dame's Jack Cooley during the second half of a game at Madison Square Garden. (Jan. 15, 2013) Photo Credit: AP

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It was just two weeks ago that D'Angelo Harrison and JaKarr Sampson each missed a potential game-winning three-pointer in the final seconds of St. John's loss to Rutgers at the Garden. If Red Storm coach Steve Lavin has the chance to call another buzzer-beating play at Rutgers tonight, he admitted he'd go in a different direction.

"Right now, I'd put the ball in Jamal Branch's hands," Lavin said Tuesday.

Of course, Lavin said it all depends on the matchup situation at a particular time, but he added, "What I love about this team is we have a lot of options in terms of guys who are emerging and growing."

Branch's play has leaped out of the boxscore the past three games, and Lavin's decision to replace center Chris Obekpa in the starting lineup by using Branch as part of a three-guard alignment coincided with wins over Notre Dame and DePaul. That resurgence makes this a big game for St. John's (11-7, 3-3 Big East), which is even with Rutgers (12-5, 3-3) in the middle of the conference pack.

In the last meeting with the Knights, Branch played only eight minutes and scored one point. In the next three games, he averaged 14.0 points while shooting 61.3 percent from the field. At the same time, Harrison's scoring has fallen off sharply. He was averaging 21.5 points, but in the past three games, he averaged 10.0 points and shot 28.1 percent.

Despite those numbers, Lavin praised Harrison for a "mature" approach that has him averaging 5.3 rebounds in those games and making key assists and defensive plays.

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"Everybody likes scoring," Harrison said. "You're going to have nights where you score 20-plus and nights where you're going to need to do other things. I've got to do what I've got to do to win. That's basically my job description."

Harrison and Branch have played with each other since the seventh grade in the Houston area, so Harrison figures they will find their chemistry soon. In the meantime, Branch's career-high 18-point game at DePaul might relieve defensive pressure on Harrison and Sampson.

"When he's hot like he was hot at DePaul, I'm almost like a decoy because teams have to tag me still," Harrison said. "Since he's scoring now, it's going to be hard for teams to guard us. I like it. I can use [more energy] on defense."

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