Admit it. After St. John’s lost its first five Big East games, it was virtually impossible not to write this off as a third straight lost season. But coach Steve Lavin persisted in comparing this team to his first Red Storm team that overcame a so-so start to finish third in the Big East and advance to the NCAA Tournament.
Somehow, some way, Lavin and a group of individual parts have come together over the past month as a team capable of competing with anyone. The Red Storm (15-9, 5-6 Big East) put the cherry on top of a stretch of six wins in seven games by knocking off No. 12 Creighton, 70-65, Sunday night at Madison Square Garden.
Beating the Bluejays (19-4, 9-2) was the signature win St. John’s had been seeking to validate its credentials as tournament-worthy if it can climb over .500 in the final seven Big East conference games. “It feels great to get it out of the way,” Sir’Dominic Pointer said of the Red Storm’s breakthrough win over a ranked opponent. “We’ve played a lot of ranked teams this year.
“We just take off now. I think we’re finally finding our own way of playing. I think we’re hard to beat when we play like this.”
St. John’s versatility and athleticism was on full display for a disappointing Sunday night crowd of 6,739 at Madison Square Garden. In the first half, the Red Storm overcame an early seven-point deficit with a high-tempo offense that forced the pace for a 40-36 halftime lead. In the second half, the Johnnies played swarming, physical defense, especially against national player of the year favorite Doug McDermott.
Oh, McDermott still got his average of 25 points, but his last basket and shot came with 8:41 left as JaKarr Sampson clamped down on him to limit his touches down the stretch. Sampson had some help from big bodies like Pointer and Orlando Sanchez, who switched effectively when McDermott tried to run his defender around screens. And Chris Obekpa bothered the Bluejays’ star, too, getting called for a flagrant one foul when he leveled McDermott with a stray elbow.
“They’re a really physical team, and they do it with discipline,” McDermott said. “They have a lot of length and athleticism, but this is definitely one of the most physical teams we’ve played so far.”
When St. John’s visited Omaha, Lavin opted to shut down everyone but McDermott, who scored a season-high 39, including the game-winning three-pointer. This time, he made McDermott run a gauntlet of big bodies.
“We substituted fresh bodies liberally in the first half,” Lavin said. “The idea was to have a cumulative effect and wear them down. It paid off in the final eight minutes and change. To be able to hold McDermott without a field goal [in that span] is clear evidence that the constant pressure made a difference.”
Whenever Lavin discusses the evolution of this team, he traces it to the second half of the second Big East game at Georgetown. The Red Storm trailed 42-16 at halftime and that grew to 33 points in the second half. But after losing that game by 17, they played No. 8 Villanova tough in a seven-point loss, blew a late lead in a two-point loss at DePaul and then blew leads in regulation and both overtime periods of an 84-83 home loss to Providence.
They didn’t look like a group about to go on a hot roll, but here they are. “To see the hard work pay dividends is very rewarding for the staff,” Lavin said. “That’s why we coach is to see the growth and development in young players.
“This win is significant because this particular group has worked so hard from halftime of the Georgetown game. Resilience, gumption, fighting back, character. There’s a gravitas to this group, a developing gravitas. We’ve found ourselves through struggle, adversity, hardship.”
The challenge now for the Red Storm is to maintain the new standard they’ve set the rest of the season.