If this season ends with an NCAA bid for St. John's, then the Red Storm may well look back at their 71-65 win over Connecticut last night at Madison Square Garden as the turning point, the place where belief in their ability to make it happen became palpable.
St. John's blew a 15-point second-half lead, had to use Chris Obekpa and JaKarr Sampson with four fouls apiece, and coach Steve Lavin sat leading scorer D'Angelo Harrison for nearly eight minutes after he committed a turnover to start the second half. But after UConn took its only lead of the game on a pair of foul shots by Ryan Boatright with 4:30 left to play, the Red Storm (15-8, 7-4 Big East) fashioned a 20-12 finishing kick in which Harrison scored seven of his 11 points.
"We felt we had to step up," said Sampson, who had 18 points and six rebounds before fouling out with 15 seconds left. "We let them get the lead. We've been doing that often."
Guard Phil Greene, who had 10 points, missed his first nine field-goal attempts but dug in and made two straight baskets to tie the game at 53 and start a 9-0 surge to give St. John's a 60-53 lead. "You have to stay levelheaded and finish the game," Greene said. "It was very important. Home games are big."
Marco Bourgault added 11 points for the Red Storm, which made 16 of 18 foul shots down the stretch and 24 of 31 overall as they held off the Huskies (16-5, 5-4), who were led by Omar Calhoun's 21 points, 14 from Shabazz Napier and 12 from DeAndre Daniels.
But the key at the end was Harrison. After UConn pulled within three points, he hit a 12-foot pullup jumper for a 64-59 lead with 51 seconds left to provide some breathing room.
Explaining his decision to bench Harrison for much of the second half, Lavin said, "Sometimes, when a player is going through a tough stretch, you can help them by sitting them on the bench. They see the game through a different lens. It's like smelling salts. You can snap them back to focus."
Lavin stuck with a three-guard lineup without the injured Jamal Branch, inserting junior college transfer Bourgault, who was coming off a career-high 12-point effort Saturday at Georgetown. Bourgault picked up where he left off, swishing a pair of threes, and then Amir Garrett came off the bench with five points in an 11-1 run that pushed St. John's lead to 20-7.
St. John's cushion reached 15 points before Calhoun hit a pair of threes to cut it to 28-20. Lavin put Bourgault back in the game, and he nailed his third straight three-point attempt for a 31-20 halftime lead.
By that time, only two players from UConn, Calhoun (13 points) and Daniels, had scored, and the Huskies were shooting a frigid 23.5 percent. St. John's had shooting woes of its own, hitting only 33.3 percent as Harrison and Greene each were limited to two points in the first half on combined 1-for-13 shooting.