St. John’s has turned blowing leads and losing close games into something of an art form this season, and the Red Storm seemed ready to do it again in their regular-season finale against Marquette on Saturday.
A lead that had been as large as 21 points slipped away in the second half. Thirteen free throws were missed, the three-point shooting cooled and it became a one-possession game in the final minute.
However, the Red Storm might be making progress. Freshman Julian Champagnie and sophomore Greg Williams Jr. made key plays in the final three seconds to clinch an 88-86 Big East win before 7,720 at the Garden.
Champagnie deflected the ball away on a drive by Golden Eagles star Markus Howard, and after the Red Storm’s Nick Rutherford missed two free throws, Williams got a hand on Jamal Cain’s attempt at a last-ditch heave.
The Red Storm (16-15, 5-13) will go into this week’s conference tournament seeded ninth of 10 teams but having won two of three for the first time since December.
“It was good to see them making those plays down the stretch,” coach Mike Anderson said. “Those are the plays we hadn’t been making, so it was good to see us making them even as Marquette was making that run.”
Champagnie had 21 points and a career-high 12 rebounds. Rutherford added a career-high 19 points along with six assists. Williams had 17 points and five steals and LJ Figueroa had 15 points for the Red Storm, who forced 20 turnovers and converted them into 27 points.
St. John’s built its big lead in the first half while shooting 7-for-12 from three-point range — two each by Rutherford, Williams and Figueroa. St. John’s shot only 2-for-10 from outside the arc after the break, but the overall 41% was among its best of the season.
Howard scored 30 points and Sacar Anim added 24 for Marquette (18-12, 8-10) which has lost six of its last seven.
St. John’s will face Georgetown, to which it has lost twice this season, in the opening round of the Big East Tournament at the Garden on Wednesday. The last time the teams met on that court was Feb. 2, when the Hoyas prevailed by a point on Omer Yurtseven’s basket with 10.2 seconds left.
Anderson and his players believe they are playing a better brand of basketball with wins over Providence, Creighton and Marquette in the past three weeks.
“We have more pieces playing well,” Anderson said in the postgame interview room, flanked by Champagnie and Williams. “These two guys are playing with great confidence. There’s consistency and they are playing more meaningful minutes . We have more of a unit and they are becoming a smarter team.”
Said Williams, “I think we’re trusting each other and playing for each other more now.”
“It’s a good team win,’’ Anderson said, “and now we move on to the next season.”