Operating without departed Moe Harkless to relieve the defensive pressure this season, St. John’s leading scorer D’Angelo Harrison has struggled mightily in a couple of big spots. On Feb. 2 in Washington, Harrison recorded the first 0-fer of his collegiate career with a 0-for-9 shooting performance at Georgetown, and he came close on Sunday in St. John’s 63-47 loss to Pitt in which he made just one of 12 shots and totaled six points.
In some ways, Harrison’s performance against No. 20 Pitt (21-7, 9-6 Big East) was more damaging because the Red Storm (16-11, 8-7) was in position to win after taking an early second-half lead. But Harrison had a scoreless second half, missing all six field-goal attempts and two foul shots.
“You just worry about the next one,” Harrison said of his shooting slump. “You’re one shot away from getting hot.”
That moment never came even though St. John’s coach Steve Lavin played him for 19 minutes in the second half. By contrast, JaKarr Sampson, who led the Red Storm with 14 points on 6-of-11 shooting, saw only 12 minutes of second-half playing time and was on the bench for more than six minutes as the Panthers turned a three-point lead into a 47-39 cushion.
Asked to explain why Sampson sat so long, Lavin said, “We went on a run and got the lead with that group. I liked the group that allowed us to go on that little run. That was pretty much it.
“Then, Pittsburgh made a run, and we came back with JaKarr. But I wasn’t upset at him, and he didn’t do anything wrong. We were looking for combinations to fuel some sort of run or give us more production offensively because we clearly were laboring at the offensive end and that was compounded by the turnovers.”
Actually, it was Sampson who gave St. John’s its first lead at 31-30 on a pair of free throws, and he was on the floor when Sir’Dominic Pointer hit two more foul shots for the Red Storm’s last lead at 33-32. Sampson sat for about six minutes and returned with 9:01 left in the game and dunked about a minute later to cut the deficit to 47-41. But that play was negated by Pitt’s J.J. Moore, whose corner three just before the shot clock expired gave the Panthers a 50-41 margin that eventually climbed to a high of 18 points.
Lavin emphasized turnovers and poor shot selection as reasons for St. John’s offensive problems, but the common thread tying Harrison’s poor shooting efforts against Georgetown and Pitt was the physical defense played by those foes. Known for his forays into the paint to make acrobatic, off-balance shots, Harrison was buffeted by the big bodies the Hoyas and Panthers laid on him.
Speaking of Pitt’s defense on Harrison, Lavin said, “They do a great job of being aggressive on screens. They jammed him and took away his air space and forced him to put the ball on the deck. They played his right hand well and forced him to go to his left, his off hand. That was effective for them. He doesn’t have as much confidence going to his left…They tagged him all night long in their coverage so he was playing in a crowd the entire afternoon.”
Lavin also noted that Harrison was short on many of his shots because he didn’t have his feet under him when he went up, and the coach suggested Harrison needs to learn to move better without the ball and trust his teammates to get it to him for open shots. Because Harrison and Sampson both like to get their own shots, they don’t always mesh.
That wasn’t a problem for Pitt’s Tray Woodall, who scored 25 points and was 4 of 7 from three-point range, where he always had clean looks. “My teammates did a great job of rotating the ball and finding me for open shots,” Woodall said. Panthers coach Jamie Dixon agreed, adding, “I think every shot he took was a great shot.”
Harrison and his Red Storm teammates could learn from Pitt’s ball movement and maybe get their best scorer the open space he needs to be at his best.