St. John's unveiled a new game-changer for the nation to see during its 77-74 win over Detroit in Monday afternoon's segment of ESPN's Tip-Off Marathon, but it wasn't highly recruited prep sensation JaKarr Sampson, as anticipated.
The impact freshman turned out to be Chris Obekpa, the 6-9 shot-blocker who came off the bench to block a school-record eight shots, grab 11 rebounds, make two steals and score seven points, including a key jumper down the stretch.
OK, there was a rookie mistake at the end, too. Obekpa's inbounds pass with two seconds left was picked off by Detroit's Juwan Howard Jr., whose potential tying three-pointer at the buzzer fell short. It was a sloppy ending in which a seven-point lead with 31 seconds left nearly got away, but Obekpa promised with an abashed grin, "It's not going to happen again."
St. John's coach Steve Lavin and Obekpa's teammates want him to keep doing everything else he did and not be afraid to take more than six shots. Team leader D'Angelo Harrison scored 11 points during the 20-6 stretch run in which the Red Storm (1-0) built a 73-66 lead with 31 seconds to go, but it was Obekpa's 17-foot jumper from the left edge of the key for a 71-66 cushion with 1:02 left that really was the icing on the cake.
"He's unselfish," Harrison said of the new big kid. "Coach Lavin tells him all the time to shoot more."
Maybe the Nigerian native, who attended Our Savior New American High School in Centereach, is just having too much fun playing defense to worry about scoring just yet. As returning guard Phil Greene said, "The way Chris Obekpa guarded the rim was amazing."
Not surprisingly for a young team with several new players, the first half was a sloppy one for the Red Storm as they trailed tough Detroit, 37-29, at intermission. Sampson missed his first six shots before finally scoring on the only shot he took in the second half.
"JaKarr had enough energy and adrenaline to light up New York City," Lavin said. "He was in a hurry, off-balance, taking quick shots and losing his man. He'll probably never have a game like that again in his college career."
The Red Storm had more than enough to make up for it.
Harrison, who did not start and sat out the first four minutes for disciplinary reasons, took over in the second half with 15 of his 22 points; Greene had 20 with six assists and six rebounds, and Amir Garrett was a revelation coming off an up-and-down freshman year with 15 points and 11 rebounds. He shot 6-for-8 from the field.
But Obekpa unquestionably was the difference-maker.
Detroit (1-1) got 21 points from Ray McCallum and 18 from Jason Calliste, but the Titans shot only 35.1 percent thanks to all of the rejections. Obekpa got in the passing lanes, too, to trigger the transition game.
"He makes me guard closer," Harrison said. "When he blocks a shot, we're taught to grab the ball so we can start the fast break."
Obekpa can't really explain how he came by such a skill. "It's a gift," he said.
The Red Storm will take it.