Ordinarily, St. John's coach Steve Lavin exercises a tender touch with his young team. But after the Red Storm allowed a 22-point lead over South Florida to dip to 10 midway through the second half, Lavin got a little worked up in the huddle.
"He usually doesn't blow a gasket, so, when he does, it's time for us to step it up," D'Angelo Harrison said.
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Although the Bulls got as close as nine points when Mike McCloskey hit a corner three with 1:27 left to play, the Red Storm was rock solid in the clutch, hitting eight straight foul shots before a finishing dunk by Marc-Antoine Bourgault wrapped up a 69-54 victory last night at Carnesecca Arena.
But Lavin was done talking to his young team, keeping his players in the locker room for nearly half an hour before the postgame media conference. "Coach had a great pep talk," Harrison said with a smile. "He always expects better from us. It was just cleaning up some stuff we did wrong, and we go from there."
As part of "Legends Night," former coach Lou Carnesecca was honored at halftime in the arena that bears his name in front of a sellout crowd of 5,602. He predicted Lavin and his young team will put St. John's (16-10, 8-6 Big East) back in the upper echelon of the college basketball world.
JaKarr Sampson, who had 20 points, seven rebounds and a block, and Harrison, who had 18 points and five assists, certainly showed the talent at Lavin's disposal. Sir'Dominic Pointer played a solid all-around game with 12 points, 10 rebounds and six assists, and Bourgault added 10 points.
But they should have put South Florida (10-16, 1-13) to bed early after running up a 41-19 lead early in the second half. The Bulls, who got 18 points and 11 rebounds from Victor Rudd, arrived as the worst offensive team in the Big East and lived down to that reputation in the first half, quickly falling behind, 14-2, after making one of its first five shots and committing three turnovers.
They cut the deficit to 18-12 on a three-pointer by Anthony Collins, but St. John's responded with a 15-3 run on the way to a 33-17 halftime lead. USF shot 25.9 percent in the first half.
When Collins picked up his fourth foul with 17:16 left in the game, things figured to get worse for the Bulls, but Rudd scored eight points in a 13-3 run that cut the deficit to 44-32. When Jawanza Poland scored on an alley-oop dunk with 4:48 left, the lead was down to 51-41, and that's where Lavin lit into his team.
"We're trying not to let it happen, but we're still working on it," Harrison said of the Storm's propensity to lose big leads. "We weren't in jeopardy, but we needed to close the gameLike coach said, we're not close to what we can be."
With four much tougher games remaining in the regular season, the Red Storm probably needs at least two wins to be in a strong position to receive an NCAA bid.