Leave it to Chris Obekpa, St. John's freshman center, to speak the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth in explaining why the Red Storm trailed by as many as 14 points before rallying to beat the New Jersey Institute of Technology, 57-49, on Saturday at Carnesecca Arena.
With a young team built around 10 freshmen and sophomores set to fly to San Francisco for a game Tuesday night, he admitted their hearts were already 3,000 miles away. "We were kind of worried about the trip," Obekpa said. "We forgot about the game. That was the problem. We have to take care of business first."
Coach Steve Lavin continues to implore his fresh-faced athletes to compete for a full 40 minutes. Lavin said of an opening half that ended with the Red Storm trailing the senior-oriented Highlanders 35-23, "They just torched the nets and sliced us up like a side of French fries."
NJIT, moving the ball crisply, shot 44.8 percent in the opening session, nailing 13 of 29 field-goal attempts, including 6-for-10 from three-point range. St. John's converted just 9-for-28 (32.1 percent) and was 1-for-7 from beyond the arc.
Lavin made a critical adjustment at halftime. "At both ends of the floor, we became more paint-oriented," he said. That allowed for his team's superior height and athleticism to show. After being outrebounded 21-15 in the opening 20 minutes, St. John's finished with a 48-42 advantage on the glass. The dramatic second-half turnaround involved 15 offensive rebounds and eight of the team's 12 blocks, equaling their season high. Obekpa had five blocks.
St. John's (6-2) outscored the Highlanders 17-5 to begin the second half and forged a 40-40 tie when JaKarr Sampson buried two foul shots with 13:10 remaining. His team sank just 11 of 29 from the line. Sampson, a 6-8 freshman forward, had his first double-double with 15 points and 17 rebounds. D'Angelo Harrison's free throw with 5:20 left put the Storm ahead to stay at 48-47. The 6-3 sophomore guard poured in 14 of his game-high 21 points after the break.