The heartbreakers keep coming, and things aren’t about to get any easier for St. John’s.
The Red Storm’s latest installment came on Monday night against Xavier at the Garden. The Musketeers scored the game’s final eight points to pull out a 77-74 Big East victory before 14,765 and earned their 11th straight win over St. John’s.
The Red Storm shook off missing their first eight shots, rode Nick Rutherford’s spark to get back in the game before halftime, played some of their best basketball to grab a 68-61 lead and went ahead 74-69 with 2:06 to play. But they couldn’t finish the job.
Xavier’s Naji Marshall drove into the lane, spotted Zach Freemantle racing in from the left side on the baseline and hit him for a close-in shot with 10.4 seconds left. That put the Musketeers ahead 75-74, their first lead since 61-60 with 10:43 to play.
St. John’s LJ Figueroa then missed a one-handed runner from about 15 feet with three seconds left.
“That’s a floater that LJ kind of makes,” Red Storm coach Mike Anderson said. “Obviously, we wanted to draw a foul, but it shouldn’t have come down to that.”
“We got a good look and we’ve got to make a shot,” Marcellus Earlington said. “Our last shot, we had the ball in our best player’s hands and it was a shot he was capable of making.”
The Red Storm fouled Freemantle with 1.8 seconds remaining and he made two free throws. Rutherford’s potential tying three-point attempt at the buzzer was blocked by KyKy Tandy.
After Rutherford finished a fast break with a dunk with 2:06 to play that lit up the crowd, St. John’s (14-12, 3-10) didn’t get a point on its final five possessions. Figueroa missed three shots, Rasheem Dunn missed the front end of a one-and-one with 26.1 seconds left and Rutherford had the buzzer-beater blocked.
“I told my guys, ‘I feel for you guys — you’re right there on the cusp and just could not finish the last [minutes] the correct way,’ ” said Anderson, whose team has lost five games by five or fewer points. “We’re taking our lumps, but we’re learning.”
The learning curve gets harder from here. St. John’s has five games left — three on the road and two at home — against the five nationally ranked Big East teams. They play on the road at No. 16 Seton Hall and No. 12 Villanova, have a home date against No. 15 Creighton, visit No. 21 Butler and close at the Garden against No. 19 Marquette.
In Anderson’s previous 17 years as a head coach — at UAB, Missouri and Arkansas — he never had a team finish below .500. That streak could end with this Red Storm team.
Earlington had 17 points (15 in the second half) and eight rebounds, Dunn also scored 17 points and Rutherford had 16 points (14 in the first half) and seven assists for the Red Storm. Figueroa scored only eight points and shot 2-for-17.
Paul Scruggs had 16 points to pace six players in double figures for Xavier (17-9, 6-7), which has won four of five.
Said Earlington, “The games we’ve lost, we’ve had shots we were capable of making and it’s just a little [mistake] here. We have to clean up the little things.”
St. John’s trailed 46-40 with 17 minutes left but took the lead with one of its most impressive stretches in conference play. In the middle of the second half, the Red Storm erupted for 10 unanswered points for a 68-61 lead.
St. John’s was everything it wants to be in the run. The defense was tenacious, getting deflections for steals that turned into fast breaks, and St. John’s converted them all with crisp passing to players in position to finish the break with layups.
Dunn started the run with a driving layup and Rutherford followed by making a steal and finding Dunn for a layup on the break. A steal by Dunn led to a layup by Earlington off a pass from Rutherford. Earlington sank a fadeaway jumper off an inbounds pass and Dunn hit Earlington for a reverse layup.
“Everybody was feeding off each other,” Earlington said. “We were good on defense and playing with energy . . . We’re a resilient group, but we have to learn how to finish.”