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St. John's builds big lead, then has to hold off St. Peter's late to earn victory

Mustapha Heron #0 of the St. John's Red

Mustapha Heron #0 of the St. John's Red Storm is defended by Doug Edert #2 of the St. Peter's Peacocks during a men's basketball game at Carnesecca Arena on Tuesday, Dec 3, 2019.  Credit: Steven Ryan

This coming Saturday is one of the days on the calendar you circle if you follow St. John’s. The Red Storm will be making its Madison Square Garden debut and will be facing a West Virginia team that is unbeaten in the Holiday Festival.

Unfortunately St. John’s goes into that game coming off the worst eight-minute stretch of the season. The Red Storm had turned Tuesday night’s non-conference game against Saint Peter’s into a laugher, taking a 25-point lead with about eight minutes to go. Seven minutes later the Peacocks had whittled the margin to six before St. John’s held them off for the 79-69 win before 2,845 at Carnesecca Arena.

St. John’s (7-2) was all over Saint Peter’s in the early going, building a lead to double digits in just over five minutes and growing it to 22 — 28-6 — with 8:39 left in the half. To that point, St. Peter’s had made nine turnovers. But in those final eight minutes of the game it was just the opposite. The Peacocks (1-4) took advantage of five Storm turnovers and pulled down six offensive rebounds as they narrowed a 68-43 deficit to 75-69 on Quinn Taylor’s driving layup with 1:05 left.

The Storm got a couple stops and LJ Figueroa was 4-for-4 on the free-throw line in the last minute.

“We got sloppy — that’s the word right there,” Mustapha Heron said. “We got sloppy and they took advantage of it. . . . I think it’s purely a focus thing. It’s a concentration thing. You’ve got to be able to take care of the ball.”

Figueroa finished with 19 points, Heron had 17 points including three three-pointers and freshman Julian Champagnie had 14 points — including eight while building the early 22-point lead — with 11 rebounds for St. John’s, which shot 48% from the floor and 40% on three-point attempts but committed 19 turnovers.

Aaron Estrada had 18 points for the Peacocks, who also committed 19 turnovers and further hurt themselves by missing 11 free throws.

“From my vantage point we have to learn to get multiple stops,” Storm coach Mike Anderson said. “During that time they got more aggressive. If you let them hang around, the ball is going to start bouncing their way and we saw that tonight.”

Though the final eight minutes was unsightly, there were some positive takeaways from the victory. St. John’s had 24 assists on 29 baskets, its highest percentage this season and a sign the players are jelling on offense. And Champagnie continues to be a revelation, upping his averages to 11.7 points and 7.3 rebounds.

Anderson suggested he will get away from playing the reserves in his rotation all at once, like a second team, and will sprinkle them in with starters to prevent teams making comebacks.

“I know I play a lot of guys and that part is on me because I'm trying to trust these guys,” Anderson said. “But as I told them . . . there could [be] some time that trust is going to end.”

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