As victories go, St. John’s 77-76 squeaker over Seton Hall Thursday night at Carnesecca Arena wasn’t exactly a confidence booster. It could have been. The Red Storm had a 15-1 run to build 65-48 lead with exactly nine minutes remaining.
But instead of easing across the finish line at the end of a blowout, the ending was a torturous litany of mistakes and misplays that have characterized the Red Storm’s play in Big East Conference games. They came into the game 0-5 in league play, and with their lead down to a measly point with 4.9 seconds left, they tried to give it away with a failed inbounds play.
Many in a crowd of 5,016 groaned and wondered how coach Steve Lavin’s team could execute so poorly when Sir’Dominic Pointer couldn’t find an open teammate under the Pirates basket and just heaved the ball over midcourt before drawing a five-second call that would have given Seton Hall the ball under its own basket. Luckily, Orlando Sanchez touched it for the Red Storm just before it went out at the opposite end, forcing the Pirates to start 94 feet away from their basket with 4.3 seconds left.
They, too, messed up their inbounds play as Fuquan Edwin ran into Pointer at midcourt and lost his dribble and a chance at a game-winning shot. So, Pointer’s defense was enough to preserve the Red Storm’s first Big East win at the end.
“He’s as resourceful a basketball player as I’ve coached,” a grateful Lavin said of Pointer. “Sometimes, you’re not exactly sure what he has in mind, but he’s a great competitor. More often than not, he does things in a positive manner.”
Midway through the second half, it looked as though St. John’s was on the verge of delivering the knockout blow. Point guard Jamal Branch came off the bench to key the 15-1 run that gave the Storm its 17-point lead, scoring seven straight points and then feeding JaKarr Sampson for a thunderous dunk. Sampson had six of his 16 points in that stretch.
Branch has seen limited time this season, but in this game, he kept ineffective Phil Greene on the bench. “He was aggressive but made good reads the majority of the time,” Lavin said of Branch. “Tonight, he gave us a lift. We got some breathing room for the first time in what feels like months.”
But Seton Hall outscored St. John’s 28-12 the rest of the way, and it felt as though the Red Storm was down to its last gasp of air at the end. When Sampson picked up his fourth foul with 6:14 to play, the Pirates’ Patrik Auda completed a three-point play to cut the Storm’s lead to 67-59. Sampson never returned, and his absence added to St. John’s woes as the lead began slipping away.
“We all know we sometimes have a hard time closing games,” Sam pson said. “Our decision-making at the end of the stretch sometimes isn’t the best…We gave ourselves a little break because we had a big lead in the last four minutes. We’re going to improve every day, and our decision-making is going to get better as we keep playing with each other.”
With road games coming up at Butler and Creighton, Sampson and his teammates and Lavin had better hope that is true. The coach once again drew a parallel between this 11-8 team and the one he had his first year at St. John’s that had the same record at this stage and made it to the NCAA Tournament. Of course, that first team had 10 seniors and had two victories over ranked teams by that time.
"I’m not saying this team is going to replicate what that team did,” Lavin qualified. “But it’s important for context…If we can make progress, we could be a team that is capable of doing special things. The only way to break out of a funk is to get a win.”
St. John’s win over Seton Hall was as funky as they come. But it sure beat the alternative all to pieces.