It took longer than expected, but St. John's finally pulled away from Fordham Saturday night. Plagued by shooting woes for much of the game, the Red Storm took control midway through the second half in a 58-47 win in the first game of the Holiday Festival doubleheader at Madison Square Garden.
The score was tied at 38 with 10:32 remaining when St. John's went on an 11-3 run that was too much for Fordham to overcome. JaKarr Sampson had six points and leading scorer D'Angelo Harrison hit a three-pointer during the spurt.
"We were able to find some holes in their zone in the second half," St. John's coach Steve Lavin said. "Early, I think our newcomers had some jitters [in their first game at the Garden]. JaKarr found his rhythm and made some big shots."
Harrison entered averaging 20.9 points but was held to 14 points and 3-for-12 shooting Saturday night. St. John's shot 32.8 percent from the field, which actually was better than Fordham (28.8 percent).
Sampson had shot only 3-for-14 before drilling three consecutive mid-range jumpers as St. John's pulled away. The freshman forward had 16 points, shooting 6-for-17, and added 10 rebounds, three steals and three blocks.
"I think the jitters are gone," Sampson said. "I'm just happy I had a better second half. I'm glad it didn't happen the whole game."
Chris Obekpa ensured that the Rams wouldn't have any easy shots during their attempted comeback, blocking a school-record 11 shots. The 6-9 freshman sent shots away from the rim with the velocity of a volleyball spike.
"He's unique. In my 25 years as a coach, I've never seen anything quite like Chris," Lavin said. "He doesn't have the 7-foot-1 Tyson Chandler kind of size, but the combination of his basketball intellect and his length and timing is what separates him."
The Red Storm (7-3) emerged from the locker room with greater energy in the second, scoring the first three points to tie the score at 27. But despite Obekpa's presence, St. John's struggled to rein in Ryan Canty, and the Fordham center scored consecutive baskets inside. Canty led the Rams with 15 points and 16 rebounds.
"Ryan Canty has been a very pleasant surprise," Fordham coach Tom Pecora said. "Obviously, he's a big, physical kid. He's got a lot of tools."
The Red Storm took its first lead (33-31) since the opening minute on a floater by Harrison with 14:19 remaining. The game then went back-and-forth in the next four minutes.
When a put-back slam by Obekpa gave St. John's a 38-33 advantage, Canty responded with a less explosive but equally effective tip-in at the other end. A tight finish appeared in store before the Red Storm's late kick.
Fordham (1-8) didn't have the firepower to match the late run, especially without Chris Gaston. The senior forward led the team in scoring and rebounding in each of the previous three seasons but has been sidelined for three weeks since arthroscopic knee surgery. Gaston is expected to return next week.
St. John's hung around despite shooting 26.5 percent in the first half. Fordham took a 27-24 lead into the break, thanks mostly to its superior interior play. The Rams enjoyed a 26-18 advantage on the boards and outscored St. John's 18-7 in the paint in the first half.