St. John's had plenty of reason for optimism Friday night.
The Red Storm had won six of seven before hosting UNC Asheville, a middling Southern Conference opponent, in its final non-conference game. Additionally, sophomore guard Jamal Branch made his highly anticipated debut after missing the first 11 games because of NCAA transfer rules.
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For the first 17 minutes, everything went according to script. Branch, a transfer from Texas A&M, delighted the Carnesecca Arena crowd with a no-look assist in his first minute on the court, and the Red Storm's lead grew to 17 points.
But then St. John's experienced breakdowns at both ends. Led by Jeremy Atkinson (31 points), UNC Asheville kept charging until it pulled out a 72-65 win.
"It was basically not putting the game away," Red Storm point guard Phil Greene said. "We had them down but we just collapsed, basically."
Atkinson scored 23 points in the second half, including 13 in a 23-4 run that turned a 54-42 deficit into a 65-58 lead.
Atkinson's third three-pointer in a two-minute stretch started a 7-0 run that gave the Bulldogs (5-7) a seven-point lead with 4:33 left. St. John's (8-4) responded with its own 7-0 spurt, tying the score at 65 on a pair of free throws by JaKarr Sampson (17 points) with 2:03 left, before UNC Asheville ended the game with seven straight points.
After Sampson tied it, the Bulldogs ran the shot clock down until Keith Hornsby drilled a deep three-pointer from the top of the key. D'Angelo Harrison (24 points) missed a shot on a tough drive, and after UNC Asheville turned the ball over, Harrison threw the ball away with 14 seconds remaining. Atkinson made four free throws in the final seconds to ice the game.
"We wanted to go out with seven out of eight wins," Harrison said. "Definitely dropping this one hurts."
Chris Obekpa had six blocked shots -- giving him 26 in the last three games -- but the Red Storm was outscored 44-28 in the paint and 17-4 on second-chance points.
Branch had two points, two assists and four turnovers in 14 minutes.
Hornsby, the son of Grammy Award-winning singer Bruce Hornsby, had 14 points.
The Red Storm will have plenty of time to work on its weaknesses, as its next game is the Big East opener at Villanova on Jan. 2.
"I think a great learning experience for us," coach Steve Lavin said. "A painful way to learn, but some real takeaways for this group as we move forward and get ready for Big East play."