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Offense struggles, but St. John’s slips past Niagara

St. John's guard Felix Balamou (10) is

St. John's guard Felix Balamou (10) is pursued by Niagara guard Cameron Fowler (1) at Carnesecca Arena in Queens, New York on Wednesday, Dec 9, 2015. NCAA Basketball between Niagara and St. John's. Credit: Steven Ryan

The most positive thing St. John’s got out of its game Wednesday against Niagara at Carnesecca Arena was the final score, a 48-44 victory. But you couldn’t call it a “feel-good” win because the Red Storm (6-3) continued to struggle with ballhandling and offensive execution.

If the lowly Purple Eagles (3-6) could force 18 more Red Storm turnovers and block eight shots, what will Syracuse (7-2) do to them Sunday at Madison Square Garden? It’s understood first-year coach Chris Mullin must endure growing pains with a team left utterly bereft of top-tier talent by the previous regime, but living with that day-to-day reality is a difficult undertaking.

The victory was the first for St. John’s while scoring fewer than 50 points since it defeated Fordham, 47-46, on Dec. 5, 1984 in Mullin’s senior season. That season ended in the Final Four, which bears no relation to where the program is at now.

“A win is a win,” Mullin said. “We can be happy about that. But we have a lot of improvements to make in a lot of areas . . . It’s passing, catching, holding the ball. Across the board, it has to get better.”

St. John’s built a 38-26 lead with 13:55 left in the game, but from that point, the two teams combined for 22 out of 23 empty possessions with the only score being a Niagara free throw. Ultimately, the Red Storm went 7:49 before scoring again on a layup by Ron Mvouika for a 40-33 lead. During that stretch St. John’s went 14 straight possessions without scoring, missing seven shots and committing seven turnovers.

Most of the ball-handling responsibility has fallen on the slender shoulders of freshman point guard Federico Mussini, who had a team-high 11 points but also had five turnovers, the same number as backup Felix Balamou committed.

“I like to have a lot of responsibility,” Mussina said. “At the same time, it’s tough because I have to play a lot (team-high 36 minutes against Niagara). I can be a little tired. But I have to do better.”

Niagara, which got 16 points from Emile Blackman and 14 points and 16 rebounds from Matt Scott, put together a 9-2 surge to cut the deficit to 45-42 with 1:29 left and had a shot to tie by Marvin Prochet, who was 1 for 9, go in and out with 40 seconds left. Christian Jones, who had 10 points and seven rebounds, was fouled with 32.6 seconds left and made both for a five-point cushion that held up.

Asked about his team’s confidence level, Mullin said, “I think they’re fine. Most of them are freshmen. Most are in this country for the first time. What do you really expect? It doesn’t mean you don’t keep pushing and keep working.”

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