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St. John's loses Big East opener to Xavier

Xavier guard Semaj Christon drives against St. John's

Xavier guard Semaj Christon drives against St. John's forward Chris Obekpa in the first half. (Dec. 31, 2013) Credit: AP

CINCINNATI - Xavier's first moments in its new conference were forgettable -- 8 minutes without so much as a single point. The last 20 minutes? A sign that the Musketeers are ready for their Big East transition.

Justin Martin led a 13-point run that opened the second half and swept Xavier to a 70-60 victory over St. John's on Tuesday in the tip-off game for the reconfigured Big East.

One of the league's newcomers beat one of its old guard with a dominant second half.

"It was a big day for our basketball program," coach Chris Mack said. "There's been an excitement from the fans, the coaches, the players, the administration, the student body for a long time coming.

"We didn't get off to the best start in the world."

Xavier (11-3) never trailed after Martin scored nine of his 15 points during the decisive run. The Musketeers outrebounded the Red Storm 25-16 in the second half and held St. John's to 25 percent shooting from the field.

The Musketeers also went 16 of 21 on free throws after not getting to the line in the first half.

"We just got to be in attack mode and we came out on top," said Isaiah Phimore, who had 11 points and nine rebounds.

Semaj Christon added 10 points and eight assists. Xavier shot 56.5 percent from the field in the second half, the best by any opponent in a half against St. John's this season.

"We played really well in the first half," coach Steve Lavin said. "I'm not pleased with our performance in the second half. In this league, you've got to play two halves. You've got to sustain it."

D'Angelo Harrison scored 21 for St. John's (9-4), which is accustomed to coming to Cincinnati, but not to face Xavier. The Musketeers were added to the reconfigured basketball league while the University of Cincinnati moved to the American Athletic Conference.

Seven Big East schools formed a basketball-only league and added Xavier, Butler and Creighton. Xavier and St. John's had played only one other time, with the Red Storm winning 75-55 in 1981.

Xavier is hoping to transfer its success at the Cintas Center to the new conference. The Musketeers have all nine games there this season and are 182-25 in 14 seasons at the on-campus arena.

Once Xavier got over its nerves, it showed it will fit nicely into the new league.

"I don't want to sound like a party pooper, but it's just like any win," Martin said. "It's good to get any win. It feels good to open the Big East with a win."

The Musketeers came out a little tight. Xavier missed its first 11 shots while St. John's pulled ahead 9-0. All five starters missed a shot during the scoreless spurt, which ended with Matt Stainbrook's putback at the 12-minute mark.

The Red Storm later regretted not getting farther ahead during Xavier's opening slump.

"You've got to capitalize, especially on the road," said Harrison, who was 7 of 20 from the field. "We should have extended the lead."

The Musketeers went on an 8-2 run and evened it at 17-all on Philmore's bank shot with 4:57 left in the half. Phil Greene IV hit a long 3 and scored a fast-break basket that put the Red Storm back ahead. The score was tied three times before Harrison's four-point play -- Dee Davis decked him as he shot from beyond the arc -- let the Red Storm take a 29-27 lead into halftime.

Xavier didn't get to the free-throw line in the first half and went only 3 of 12 from beyond the arc. St. John's was 1 of 3 on free throws.

Martin led the 13-0 run that opened the second half and put Xavier up 40-29. The forward hit a 3-pointer that gave the Musketeers their first lead, then had a putback, a steal and a layup and a driving layup during the run. The Red Storm missed its first seven shots in the half.

"I'm a firm believer that it's not how you start, but how you finish," Martin said. "I wanted to put the first half behind me. I felt if I could do something, my teammates would feed off that energy."

Harrison had a pair of pull-up jumpers that cut it to 48-44. The Red Storm couldn't get closer than four points the rest of the way. Stainbrook scored inside, and the Musketeers made seven straight free throws while rebuilding the lead to 11 points and holding on.

St. John's Chris Obekpa blocked four shots. He led nation with 4.03 blocks per game last season, setting a school record for a freshman.

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