CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Without suspended big man Chris Obekpa, the operative question for St. John's as its NCAA Tournament second-round game against San Diego State wound down was whether the Red Storm would run out of time or fouls among the starting five.
The answer in that battle of attrition was: time. D'Angelo Harrison's stellar career ended with his fifth foul with just over a minute left, but by then, the game was out of hand for the undermanned Red Storm in a disheartening 76-64 loss.
When Steve Lavin pulled the rest of his seniors in the final seconds, a band of St. John's fans chanted "Thank you, seniors!"
It was a sentimental ending to a four-year journey in which they faced one obstacle after another. In that sense, it was fitting that the odds were stacked against them as the Aztecs (27-8) used their size to turn a 40-32 rebounding advantage into an 18-5 margin in second-chance points. To make matters worse, San Diego State shot over the 2-3 zone Lavin used, making 9 of 22 three-pointers, including 15 points from former Red Storm player Dwayne Polee II on 5-for-7 shooting from beyond the arc.
Asked about the difficulty of playing without Obekpa, Harrison said, "It's tough, but we didn't use it as an excuse. They got off to a hot start, shooting threes. We dared them to shoot, and they were making it."
Harrison had 18 points and nine rebounds and combined with Sir'Dominic Pointer, who had 21 points and 10 rebounds, to keep it competitive. The Aztecs, who will meet Duke on Sunday, were led by JJ O'Brien's 18 points.
The Red Storm's first NCAA berth in four years was marred by the two-week suspension of Obekpa, the nation's fifth-leading shot-blocker, for a violation of team rules. That reduced a regular six-man rotation to a very small starting five.
Without Obekpa under the rim, Phil Greene said, "It was very difficult. He's our anchor. He changes the game."
The Aztecs went to the rim early, drawing two fouls on St. John's Rysheed Jordan (10 points) with 17:51 left in the first half and forcing him to the bench the rest of the half. "Foul trouble early clearly affected our chances to be successful," Lavin said. "We're a different team with Rysheed on the floor. If he doesn't get in foul trouble, this game comes right to the wire."
Asked if he would have played a zone with Jordan on the baseline going against 6-10 Skylar Spencer, who drew the fouls, if Obekpa had been available, Lavin declined to answer a "hypothetical" question. But he said the size differential was an "undeniable factor" and added, "Ideally, I would have preferred to have Chris' services today."
Pointer asserted himself, scoring nine points in a 15-4 run to grab a 19-14 lead, but that was as good as it got for St. John's, which trailed by seven at halftime. San Diego State opened the second half with Polee's fifth three-pointer of the game to feed into an 11-2 run that began with the last basket of the first half.
The Red Storm cut its 49-35 deficit to 55-48, but a spate of turnovers prevented them from getting any closer. Pointer, Branch and Harrison were playing with four fouls before Harrison fouled out. "We kept playing," Pointer said, "but we didn't have enough gas."
Describing his emotions as his college career ended, Harrison said, "When I sat down, that's when it hit me. It's tough. I don't even know how to put it in words."