There’s no joy in losing for any coach. But unlike the panic and frustration St. John’s fans might feel after a 0-5 start in Big East play, things look different from the head coach’s seat.
Coach Steve Lavin on Saturday night acknowledged feeling as if he were “in the desert with no oasis in sight.” But in the next breath, he added, “I enjoy the challenge of this riddle in terms of getting the team to play in a more cohesive way and elevate their level of play. I enjoy the problem-solving aspect of using ingenuity to try and bring forth the best in this group.”
Lavin and his players took a long, cool drink from the well of victory after a 69-55 win over Dartmouth at Carnesecca Arena. Never mind that the Big Green are an average Ivy League team that couldn’t match the Red Storm’s athleticism and talent level.
Dartmouth still presented a challenge to a St. John’s team in a fragile state of mind. The Big Green played excellent man-to-man defense and executed patiently on offense, always probing into the paint in the first 15 seconds on the shot clock and then pulling it back outside and starting over with 18 or 19 seconds left if the shot wasn’t there. If not for eight first-half turnovers, the Big Green might have been leading at halftime instead of trailing, 38-34.
It was an uncomfortable spot for the Red Storm. Imagine the reaction if they had lost this game. But they didn’t. They came out aggressively in the second half, using their athleticism and length to pressure Dartmouth into more turnovers and bother the Big Green’s shots in the half-court sets. Lavin went to full-court pressure early in the second half, and St. John’s ran up a 21-point lead and held Dartmouth to 26.7 percent shooting in the final 20 minutes.
Point guard Phil Greene, who returned to the starting lineup and had an excellent game with a team-high 16 points, called it a “breakthrough” for the Red Storm because of the way they played to their strengths. But Lavin disagreed slightly.
The coach saw positive signs in the aftermath of a blowout loss at Georgetown in which St. John’s played with little effort and trailed by as much as 33 points. “We had a great week of practice after Georgetown and we really played well in three games.”
Lavin was referring to a 74-67 loss to then-No. 8 Villanova, a 77-75 loss at DePaul and Tuesday’s 84-83 double-overtime loss to Providence, which upset Big East-leading Creighton Saturday night. “We made dramatic progress from the Georgetown game and very easily could have been 3-0 or 2-1 or 1-2. We ended up with the worst possible scenario, which is 0-3.
“But I thought we played really well against Villanova and didn’t close them out. We were down seven at DePaul and played well to get a four-point lead. We just lost a heartbreaker. The other night was a double-overtime, high-level game against Providence, which waxed Georgetown.
“I really have seen some individual progress, and as a group, we were doing some good things. But when you come up short in those three games, you feel as though there’s not another win in sight. That’s part of the psychology. You don’t want your kids to be fragile to where they lose their confidence or aggressiveness.
“To me the breakthrough happened the week after Georgetown in practice. Even though we’ve had losses, we’ve played really well.”
Still, Lavin said the Red Storm showed a lack of confidence when it fell behind 14-2 at the start of the Providence game, and he sensed some of the same thing when St. John’s led by only four at halftime against Dartmouth.
“But we had the breakthrough in the second half,” Lavin said of the Red Storm’s finishing kick. “The only way we’re going to solve the challenges we’re facing is looking within individually and collectively as a group and trying to support each other through a tough time. Eventually, you make your breaks by sticking to it.”
In other words, keep the faith and keep working hard. There are 15 Big East games left, time enough to turn the season around.