Trailing No. 2 Syracuse by 12 at halftime Sunday at Madison Square Garden, St. John's had a choice. The Red Storm could accept a typical blowout loss to the Orange, or it could muster some courage, attack Jim Boeheim's signature 2-3 zone and maybe grow up a bit.
When freshman Rysheed Jordan was fouled beyond the arc and hit three foul shots to tie the score at 53, Red Storm fans had their answer and roared their approval.
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St. John's eventually took a two-point lead with 5:48 left as the decibel level climbed, but the Red Storm faltered down the stretch in a 68-63 loss amid a flood of mixed emotions.
"I was disappointed. We're on our home court and we've got the lead," said St. John's coach Steve Lavin, who lost to Syracuse for the fifth time in as many tries since taking over four years ago but by his closest margin ever.
But Lavin added, "To come from 12 down, we didn't go quietly into the night."
Actually, the Red Storm (6-3) trailed by 14 in the first half. "We were tentative," Lavin said. "It almost seemed like it was a deer in the headlights in the first half."
Lavin pulled Jordan aside at halftime and told him he didn't care about missed shots. "Let's be aggressive," Lavin said. "Let's be assertive."
Jordan hasn't been permitted to speak with the media this season while he adjusts to college basketball, but he spoke with his actions in the second half. He repeatedly drove inside against the zone to create shots for himself and teammates and to get to the foul line. The result was a 28-14 St. John's run for a 60-58 lead. He scored nine of his 13 points in that stretch.
"That's what we've been waiting for," Sir'Dominic Pointer said of Jordan. "That was his best game. He made free throws, he made shots, he looked to attack the rim."
Jordan also played well defensively against Syracuse freshman point guard Tyler Ennis, who had 21 points and six assists but was held to six points in the second half. Everything was clicking for St. John's, which also got 21 points and six rebounds from D'Angelo Harrison and 12 points and six rebounds from JaKarr Sampson. Harrison held the Orange's second-leading scorer, Trevor Cooney, without a point and to only three shots.
But after Syracuse regained a 62-60 lead on Ennis' layup, Sampson missed two free throws with a chance to tie the score with 3:12 left. "That's killing me," he said. "I feel like it turned the momentum."
It didn't end St. John's chances, but it typified the Red Storm in the final five-plus minutes. The Red Storm missed its final eight field-goal attempts, committed two turnovers and went 3-for-7 at the line.
Meanwhile, Syracuse star C.J. Fair, who had 21 points, hit back-to-back baseline jumpers to push the Orange lead to 66-61 and secure the win.
"He struggled in the second half, but we were going to go to him," Boeheim said. "He made the plays that had to be made."
St. John's didn't.
"In the second half, I thought for that 16 minutes, we were playing the best basketball we've played this year," Lavin said. "In the last four minutes, we had a flurry of missed free throws, multiple turnovers and a number of bad shots. That's where Syracuse separates."
But not by as much as usual against St. John's.