St. John’s finally was good enough to feel really bad. This might be the day when the team grew up, the day on which it was not consoled by making a stride or learning a lesson. It was the game in which the Red Storm finally felt the pain of losing one that got away.
This was the team’s progress: genuine disappointment in having overcome a huge deficit to hold a lead with 5.6 seconds left, then falling to Seton Hall, 62-61, at the Garden Sunday after a controversial call.
The whole event was so intense that there were hot tempers and harsh words instead of a polite handshake line afterward. “It was a hard-fought game . . . It just came down at the end to a lot of talking, nothing crazy,” said Seton Hall’s Derrick Gordon, who was in the middle of it.
Ultimately, St. John’s felt worse. “It’s going to sting like crazy,” coach Chris Mullin said, “because I thought we played well enough to win.”
Durand Johnson made the first of two free throws to put the overmatched Red Storm up 61-60, then missed the second. There was a frenzied scrum in the lane and there was a lot of contact both ways, but the foul was called on the Storm’s Ron Mvouika with 5.6 seconds remaining. Seton Hall’s Isaiah Whitehead — having an uncharacteristically horrible game with 1-for-12 field-goal shooting — was awarded two free throws and made them both.
St. John’s had one last chance, inbounding in the frontcourt with 2.6 seconds left, but never got off a shot. That just made the previous foul call sting more.
“I’ll have to look at it again,” said Mullin, adding he thought the ball had been securely in possession of Kassoum Yakwe, the freshman from Our Savior New American in Centereach who had a coming-of-age day. “He doesn’t lose the ball by himself. But everyone at the game has different angles.”
Yakwe, a native of Mali who had 16 points, 15 rebounds and a game-changing four blocks, said, “Obviously I want to win. The referee called a foul. It happened like that. I don’t know if he made a good call or not.”
In any case, it was a huge win for Seton Hall (19-7, 9-5 in the Big East), which would have experienced a horrible blow to its NCAA hopes had it lost to a team now 8-20 and 1-14. Led by Desi Rodriguez, who had 19 of his 24 points in the first half, the visitors appeared ready to coast once they built an early 30-12 lead. But St. John’s created a storm of excitement in the second half, despite finishing with 10-for-24 free-throw shooting and 21 turnovers.
“I’m really proud because even though we were down, we didn’t get into each other,” Yakwe said. “We just stayed focused and tried to follow what the coaches had to say and kept playing hard.”
But pride was no consolation this time. Mullin said this game really hurt. “You have to feel like this. The thing is how you come back. I don’t know a player, a team, a business that has not been built that way,” he said. “When you go back and correct your mistakes and work hard at it, you’ll get paid off.”