St. John's had to shake off the hangover from its emotional win over Georgetown and deal with the loss of injured starting center Chris Obekpa on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden. But after a ragged first half, the Red Storm put together an epic 24-2 second-half run on their way to a 77-52 romp over Butler.
The victory was the ninth in the past 10 games for St. John's (18-9, 8-6 Big East), which got 23 points from JaKarr Sampson (11-for-15 shooting), and Jamal Branch added 10 points and five assists off the bench after missing the previous three games for dental surgery.
Butler (12-14, 2-12) was led by Khyle Marshall's 16 points and seven rebounds, but the Red Storm's zone defense held him scoreless and reboundless in the second half.
St. John's coach Steve Lavin called on his players to improve their sense of urgency on defense, and that translated to a high-tempo transition game. "We thought we came too far to let this slip away," Branch said.
Before tipoff, Lavin announced that the 6-9 Obekpa suffered a sprained right ankle in practice Monday and is out for 10-14 days. Obekpa played a key role in St. John's recent winning surge, averaging 8.7 points, 5.3 rebounds and 76.7 percent shooting over the previous six games. His season average of 3.2 blocks leads the Big East and ranks 11th nationally.
Senior God'sgift Achiuwa started in Obekpa's place, and Orlando Sanchez backed up in the low post. They shot a combined 0-for-5 in the first half and allowed Marshall to dominate under the basket as the Bulldogs took a 33-30 halftime lead.
But the Red Storm began the second half with what Lavin calls a sense of purpose, going on a 14-2 run for a 44-35 lead. It was a case of offense fueled by defense as Butler shot 1-for-10 with two turnovers in that stretch. Marshall managed only three field-goal attempts in the second half as the Bulldogs were held to 20-percent shooting compared with 60.7 percent for the Red Storm.
"We knew we had to shut Marshall down," Sampson said. "We kept the same mind-set, letting defense create offense . . . They didn't miss many shots in the first half. We turned up the defense, and that's when we started getting rebounds and running out."
The Bulldogs cut the deficit to 46-41 when Alex Barlow (11 points) buried a three, was fouled and completed a four-point play. But the Red Storm responded with the 24-2 surge, starting with five points from Branch and including 10 from Sampson for a 70-43 cushion. Its lead eventually reached 29 points.
"Butler was beating us to the punch in every aspect," Lavin said. "In the second half, we completely flipped that."
Still, Lavin was upset with St. John's 14 turnovers, giving his team an overall grade of C-minus because of all the empty possessions. But the coach added, "To win by 25 when we didn't play well is a good indication of progress."