With 11:44 left to play, lowly Niagara cut a St. John's lead that had ranged as high as 13 points to a single point Tuesday night at Carnesecca Arena. That hardly was the sort of result coach Steve Lavin was seeking when he experimented with two starting lineup changes and made liberal use of his bench, trying to find some depth for the future.
As soon as the Red Storm got serious, they put together a 19-5 run that was fueled by the energetic play of Sir'Dominic Pointer, who was benched for the first five minutes because he was late for a meeting. Pointer scored six points and had a block during that surge to send St. John's on its way to a comfortable 70-57 triumph.
"It was a minor team violation, a parking ticket," Lavin said. "Dom was late to a film session."
Lavin inserted freshman walk-on Myles Stewart and got three three-pointers from him plus three blocks in 19 useful minutes that likely will earn him some playing time Saturday at Syracuse, where he will be asked to shoot over the Orange zone. The other lineup change was more interesting. Senior Jamal Branch started at point guard over sophomore Rysheed Jordan, who had nine turnovers in the previous loss to Gonzaga.
"Branch has been playing well, and we're rewarding performance in practice and games," Lavin said. "He has the best assist-to-turnover ratio, and he's shooting over 50 percent. With a player like Rysheed, sometimes, it helps to see the game before jumping into the action."
Branch, who scored 12 points, shot 5-for-6 and had six assists, and Stewart were crucial in building an early 17-7 lead.
In the first half, Lavin gave time to lightly used Christian Jones, Felix Balamou and freshman Amar Alibegovic, seeking a clue as to whether he has anyone capable of contributing minutes when Big East play begins.
But when Karonn Davis hit a three for the Purple Eagles (1-4) to cut St. John's (5-1) lead to 46-45, Niagara coach Chris Casey, who was an assistant at St. John's under Norm Roberts, had a chance for a happy homecoming. But Phil Greene hit a pair of jumpers to restore a cushion, and then Pointer got out in transition for a fast-break layup and two dunks to help push the lead back to 65-50.
"That was St. John's basketball at its best," said leading scorer D'Angelo Harrison, who had 16 points. "We turned up the heat when they cut it to one."
Harrison also tied Pointer for the team high with nine rebounds and was the team's low-post presence. That underlined the fact the Red Storm needs more from 6-10 Chris Obekpa at Syracuse. "I want Chris to be more assertive offensively," Lavin said. "We need him to attack down low. He defends himself when he hesitates."