St. John's has just enough talent to tease, but not enough to sustain a consistent upward surge in the Big East standings. The Red Storm can go to Notre Dame and South Florida and pull out tough-minded road wins that hint at their potential, but those bright spots are interspersed with three straight home losses to Seton Hall and Marquette at Carnesecca Arena and to 12th-ranked Pittsburgh, 71-64, Saturday at Madison Square Garden.
Typically, St. John's hung tough in the second half and had a chance to win, cutting an 11 point lead to five with 17:24 left to play. Plenty of time. But the Red Storm simply could not get any closer to get over that hump against a team as tough and disciplined as the Panthers.
Two major factors stood out in dissecting the loss. D.J. Kennedy, the Storms' best offensive player, sat the final 15:44 of the first half with two fouls and scored all his 12 points in the second half. Kennedy admitted it was tough to sit 16 minutes and "watch the first half go bad," but he was careful to say he wasn't second-guessing coach Norm Roberts.
"He knows better than me," Kennedy said of the coach. "I'm definitely not mad at his decision."
Roberts and point guard Malik Boothe said other players stepped in and picked up the slack, and they had a point in the sense that it was a six-point game as late as with 58.8 seconds to play. But forward Justin Burrell wasn't so sure.
"We didn't play up to the way we've been playing," Burrell said. "I don't know if that was because we missed D.J. or not."
Burrell has been a voice of reason and optimism for the Red Storm (15-13, 5-11 Big East) throughout this difficult season. To him, the second major factor in St. John's loss was its inability to execute as well as Pitt, especially on the defensive end, where the Panthers were able to get inside for 16 baskets that were either layups, dunks or close-range shots in the paint.
"Fist things first," Burrell said. "We didn't stop the ball. They got to the positions on the floor that they wanted. We didn't pressure the ball to make passing tougher. They literally went everywhere they wanted. We played hard, but we didn't play smart. We didn't listen to the scouting report like we should have."
Pittsburgh shot 51.1 percent from the field, making 19 of 33 shots inside the three-point arc. St. John's was a poor 2 of 15 from three-point range, but what hurt just as much was going 19 of 43 inside the arc. The Red Storm simply wasn't as efficient running its offense as the Panthers were.
"They're patient," Kennedy said of the Panthers. "Anything you give them, they take it."
On this day, Pitt (22-7, 11-5) took what St. John's gave all the way to the bank.