Just when it looked like the days of missed opportunities were over for St. John’s, everyone got a reminder that the Red Storm still hasn’t turned the corner in this season of unmet expectations.
St. John’s had a chance to enhance its resume and remain among the hottest teams in the Big East against Creighton on Wednesday night and saw the game slip through its fingers in the late going.
The Storm led by seven at halftime and through most of the second half and, though it gave the lead up, still had a one-point edge with 3:16 to play. From there it scored only two points — going 1-for-4 with a turnover in its last five possessions — and suffered a stinging 81-78 loss to the Bluejays before 4,542 at Carnesecca Arena.
"Defensively we were good but you’ve got to make plays down the stretch," St. John’s coach Mike Anderson said. "That’s what big-time teams and big-time players do. You’ve got to live for those moments. . . . we had some plays where we just didn’t execute."
For St. John’s (15-12, 7-9), it was a fifth Big East loss by fewer than six points or in overtime. Creighton (19-8, 11-5) extended its winning streak to six games.
"This one stings a lot," Montez Mathis said. "We need to keep our heads up and finish the rest of the season strong."
Mathis turned a Posh Alexander steal into a transition layup — though he was fouled and missed the free throw — for a 76-75 lead with 3:16 to play. The Bluejays scored the next four points to take a lead and Dylan Addae-Wusu scored on a putback with 28 seconds left to bring the Storm within 79-78. The Storm fouled and got a break when Trey Alexander missed the front end of a one-and-one. On the ensuing possession, Mathis had an open look at the basket, but instead drove into the lane to put up a highly-contested shot that was off the mark with 17 seconds left and Creighton got the rebound.
"He turned down [an open] shot and took a tougher shot," Anderson said. "We had shots but you’ve got to be able to make the plays."
St. John’s fouled again and Ryan Kalkbrenner made two free throws. Then Addae-Wusu turned the ball over in the backcourt with a bad pass and the Storm had to foul again. Alex O’Connell missed the front of that one-and-one to give the Storm a last shot but Aaron Wheeler’s three-pointer at the final buzzer caromed off the backboard and rim.
Julian Champagnie was limited to eight points on 3-for-16 shooting and Wheeler had just three points on 1-for-10 shooting and Anderson said "that’s hard to overcome." They also didn’t have starting center Joel Soriano (knee). But St. John’s got some big contributions from unexpected places: O’Mar Stanley had a career-best 14 points and shot 7-for-8. Stef Smith shot 5-for-6 and had 13 points. Nevertheless, Stanley didn’t play in the final 8:46.
Mathis had 15 points and Alexander had 13 points and six rebounds for St. John’s. Ryan Hawkins finished with 25 points and 12 rebounds and Kalkbrenner had 19 points for Creighton.
There was a somber moment in the second half when Creighton freshman Ryan Nembhard went for a steal against Alexander and suffered what looked to be a severe right wrist injury, even yelling "I broke it." He had seven assists and no turnovers to that point. He was taken to a hospital to be examined and coach Greg McDermott said they were awaiting test results.
St. John’s trailed by as much as 10 in the first half before dominating the last eight minutes before the break. Stanley had a pair of dunks as he scored six straight points to spark a 17-4 run and Mathis capped it with a driving layup for a 36-32 Storm lead en route to a 46-39 halftime advantage.
In the second half, St. John’s shot a miserable 33% while Creighton made 57% from the floor.