Facing Rutgers at less-than-soldout Carnesecca Arena after scoring a thirlling upset of defending national champion Duke Sunday at raucous Madison Square Garden figured to be the classic trap game for St. John's, and it was. Not that the Red Storm wasn't mindful of the pitfalls or didn't try hard. It's simply hard to reach the level they played against Duke two games in a row.
But St. John's pulled out a 58-56 Big East victory it absolutely had to have on Justin Brownlee's layup with his injured left hand with 3.8 seconds to play Wednesday night. "We were very fortunate to win tonight," Lavin admitted. "Rutgers outplayed us in many facets of the game. We had just enough to get over the top."
The Red Storm had just enough mental toughness to avoid the kind of heartbreaking loss it suffered 11 days earlier to Cincinnati at Carnesecca by a 53-51 margin. That night, St. John's made only 12 of 26 foul shots, a galling performance that might come back to haunt the Storm at NCAA tournament time.
St. John's (13-8, 5-5 Big East) suffered similar shortcomings against Rutgers (12-10, 3-7). After making seven of their first eight shots, the Red Storm shot 11 of 41 the rest of the way, including 2 of 11 from three-point range. They were outrebounded, 33-27, and managed only six assists as a function of their poor shooting. Although the Storm forced 23 Rutgers turnovers, it led to only 21 points when there were opportunities for many more.
What Lavin's team did right, though, was match Rutgers' defensive intensity in the second half. They also got to the line for 31 foul shots, making 11 of 15 in the second half when the pressure was on. Considering how much St. John's needed this win to even its conference record, which will be a key factor in deciding NCAA bids, it was a gutty performance.
"We hung in there and stayed with it," Paris Horne said.
Rutgers coach Mike Rice faulted his team for its "pathetic offensive effort" while giving his seniors good marks for the fight they showed down the stretch. He gave St. John's partial credit for forcing the Scarlet Knights' 23 turnovers, saying, "They were really good at forcing us to play at their tempo. Their pressure is good, but tonight, some of those have to be on us. If we don't get in our own way, we had a chance for a Big East victory on the road."
The Knights certainly did, and it's the measure of St. John's improvement that they didn't get it.