If St. John's Big East Tournament quarterfinal against Providence Thursday at Madison Square Garden effectively was a play-in game to the NCAA Tournament, then the Red Storm is headed to the NIT.
St. John's cut a 17-point deficit to one, but JaKarr Sampson missed a potential go-ahead layup with 39 seconds left before Providence pulled away for a 79-74 victory.
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Maybe it's whistling past the graveyard, but St. John's coach Steve Lavin doesn't believe it was a play-in game. "I don't think it's an automatic that we're not in," he said. "I know people have been saying that and we didn't help our cause any by losing today, but I haven't bought that it was a play-in game for either team.
"It's in the Selection Committee's hands. If you look at our body of work and a number of criteria they consider, we clearly have some pluses. But losing in the first round of your conference tournament is not a good thing."
The fourth-seeded Friars (21-11) and fifth-seeded Red Storm (20-12) were part of a three-way tie for third in the Big East along with Xavier with 10-8 conference records. They split their season series, and Lavin said they basically played on even terms Thursday except that St. John's was 13-for-26 at the foul line to the Friars' 22-for-30, a nine-point differential that decided the game.
"I think St. John's clearly is an NCAA Tournament team," Providence coach Ed Cooley said.
But foul trouble that sidelined 6-9 Chris Obekpa for all but three minutes opened the door for Providence big men LaDontae Henton (16 points, 11 rebounds) and Kadeem Batts (13 points, 12 rebounds) to dominate inside. St. John's held star guard Bryce Cotton to one first-half point, 1-for-10 shooting and 12 points, but guard Josh Fortune (24 points) helped Providence take a 63-46 lead.
"C.O. was in foul trouble, so that hurt us," Red Storm guard Jamal Branch said of Obekpa. "It was definitely a big impact. But we just waited to the end to start making plays."
D'Angelo Harrison (21 points, 10 rebounds, four assists), Rysheed Jordan (17 points) and Sampson (15 points, nine rebounds) led a furious comeback that cut the deficit to 69-68 on Harrison's two free throws with 1:15 left. They got the ball back, but Sampson missed a layup for the lead, drawing contact but no foul.
"Normally, I would make it, and I'm disappointed in myself," Sampson said. "Foul or no foul, I felt I should have made it."
With 31 seconds left, Harrison appeared to force a turnover by Cotton, but the whistle blew for a foul. Cotton made the first two of 10 straight Providence free throws to end the game.
"I thought I got a clean strip," Harrison said. "Credit Cotton or credit Providence for building that lead. If we wouldn't have gotten down so much, it would have been a different kind of ballgame."
Now it's a waiting game until Selection Sunday.