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St. John’s defense much improved
St. John’s was on the wrong end of a 58-56 loss to Rutgers Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden, but the Red Storm continued its recent trend toward better rebounding and a stronger defense. Coach Steve Lavin got his team to make a remarkable transition from its Big East opener at Villanova, a 98-84 overtime loss, to Saturday’s surprising 53-52 win at then-No. 11 Cincinnati.
The same formula of active defense and strong rebounding put the Red Storm in position to beat Rutgers, but poor foul shooting cost St. John’s the game. The Red Storm got to the line 27 times but made only 15 foul shots compared to a 9-of-14 night for Rutgers. The margin of error for St. John’s is a thin one, so, it has to take advantage when it gets 13 more attempts at the foul line than the opponent.
Still, St. John’s outrebounded Rutgers, 41-36, including 17-12 on the offensive glass. That produced a 14-9 edge in second-chance points. The Red Storm also held the Knights to 40.0 percent shooting, although Rutgers shot 48.1 percent in the second half. The problem was at the offensive end, where St. John’s shot only 35.2 percent and made just three of 15 three-point attempts.
“It was a typical Big East grinder,” Storm coach Steve Lavin said. “Defensively, all our goals were reached. We outrebounded them. We held [Eli] Carter in check, 3 of 14. That was our big focus, Carter and [Myles] Mack.”
Mack shot 1 of 6 and had nine points, while Carter totaled only eight points. However, forwards Dane Miller (11 points) and Austin Johnson (10) each got loose inside to make five of seven shots apiece.
But if St. John’s simply had made two-thirds of its 27 foul shots, it would have won. “We didn’t anticipate the degree of missed free throws, and that cost us,” Lavin said. “We didn’t convert from the foul line late in the game. And we also had some point-blank layups that we missed kind of like in golf with putting.”
Another bright spot for St. John’s was the play of center Chris Obekpa (pictured against Cincinnati), who had 11 rebounds and five blocked shots.
“Not only does he block shots, but because he talks, he’s kind of like the air traffic control tower out there,” Lavin said of Obekpa. “He anchors our defense. He’s quick enough to come out and has nimble feet so he can slide and stay in front of guards.”
The blocks gave Obekpa a season total of 76 through just 15 games to tie the school’s single-season record set by Walter Berry in 1985-86. The NCAA freshman record is 186 set last season by Kentucky’s Anthony Davis, and the overall record is 207 by Navy’s David Robinson in 1985-86.
“It’s not personal; it’s all about winning,” Obekpa said of his individual stats. “If we don’t win, it means nothing.”
Nice sentiment, but Obekpa’s blocked shots and rebounds figure to be a key ingredient to give St. John’s the defensive presence it needs to win this season.