St. John's coach Steve Lavin said he finds no satisfaction in moral victories. But his outlook was certainly put to the test by a 69-67 overtime loss to No. 15 Marquette Saturday at Madison Square Garden.
Having faced a steady stream of adversity in the last month, the Red Storm had every reason to pack it in when it trailed by nine points with less than two minutes remaining. But St. John's refused to quit, scratching together a 9-0 run in the final 1:48 to tie the score at 63 and force overtime.
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"We're going to grow from all the stuff that's been happening and we're going to come together and we're going to get past it," sophomore forward Amir Garrett said. "We played our hearts out tonight."
JaKarr Sampson (17 points) scored the first basket of overtime to give the Red Storm its first lead since late in the first half, but Marquette's Vander Blue (16 points) came through with a pair of clutch driving layups.
Blue's tying layup with 48 seconds remaining was followed by a pair of missed jumpers by St. John's. Marquette called timeout with seven seconds remaining to set up Blue for another drive down the right side, and the junior guard delivered by banking in a layup as time expired.
"It's been a dark month, with the losses and some of the things that have happened, both on and off the court, but I love this group of players," Lavin said. "I think anyone that watches us can see why I'm so positive about the direction that we're headed."
Playing without leading scorer D'Angelo Harrison, who was suspended on March 1 for the remainder of the season for conduct detrimental to the team, and Sir'Dominic Pointer, who was serving a one-game suspension for fighting in the final minutes of a 66-40 loss to Notre Dame on Tuesday, the Red Storm came out inspired.
St. John's (16-14, 8-10 Big East) led 25-19 with four minutes remaining in the first half before the wheels came off. With Sampson and Chris Obekpa (seven rebounds, seven blocks) on the bench with two fouls apiece, the Golden Eagles (23-7, 14-4) embarked on an 18-0 run that stretched into the opening minutes of the second half.
Marquette, which earned a share of the Big East regular season crown with Georgetown, appeared to be on its way to a blowout when the lead reached 41-27 with 17:07 remaining, but Sampson and little-used Christian Jones (career-high 10 points) sparked a 14-3 spurt that kept St. John's within striking distance. Phil Greene scored a game-high 20 points and was instrumental in the comeback.
The effort wasn't enough to prevent St. John's from dropping to 1-6 in its final seven games. The Red Storm's once promising NCAA Tournament prospects likely now can only be salvaged by running the table in the Big East Tournament. That last gasp begins on Wednesday, when the 10th-seeded Red Storm face seventh-seeded Villanova at 7 p.m.
"It's a fresh start," Lavin said. "Everyone in America is 0-0 when you step into championship week. We can't allow this loss to turn into another loss on Wednesday."