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Steve Lavin’s Johnnies bounce back

St. John's center Chris Obekpa shoots a free

St. John's center Chris Obekpa shoots a free throw during the second half against Georgia Tech on Nov. 30, 2013. Credit: Getty Images / Maddie Meyer

          It almost seemed like a gift when Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard announced the suspensions of starters Eugene Teague and Brian Oliver before Thursday night’s St. John’s game at the Prudential Center in Newark. The long climb out of the 0-5 hole the Red Storm dug at the start of Big East play had been draining, and they were due for a letdown after upsetting then-No. 12 Creighton on Sunday.

          But the Pirates (13-12, 4-8 Big East) hadn’t lost on their home floor to St. John’s (16-9, 6-6) since Feb. 15, 1998, and even short-handed they were in position to extend that streak another year in the final seconds. That they didn’t is a tribute to the resilience and grit the Red Storm showed to pull out a 68-67 squeaker that enabled them to reach .500 in conference play.

          St. John’s scored the final five points of the game, putting a nose in front at the wire when Chris Obekpa made the first of two foul shots with 2.1 seconds left before intentionally missing the second and leaving only 1.5 seconds on the clock. It wasn't enough for a Pirates miracle as Sir’Dominic Pointer intercepted a full-court inbounds pass just before the final buzzer.

          Describing what it took for his team to win seven of its past eight games (including one non-conference contest) after the 0-5 start, St. John’s coach Steve Lavin said, “It’s been very challenging. I put this group up there as one of the most special teams I’ve coached because of their resilience or fight or bounce-back.

          “They’re a unique group because they kept their chins up through a dark period. Yet, no one is satisfied. There’s no complacency. Tonight, we just came out flat.”

          St. John’s came out flat in front of a crowd of no more than 300 people, got outplayed badly in the first half and still found a way to win. The Hall’s Willard said his team is one of the worst offensive rebounding teams in Division I, but he told the Pirates to focus on offensive rebounds because St. John’s would try to block everything and wouldn’t block out on second shot chances. Boy was he right.

          The Pirates scored 30 points in the paint and also got 19 points off 11 turnovers to build a 38-33 first half lead. Lavin said his team’s effort was at its lowest point since falling behind 42-16 in the first half of a loss at Georgetown a month ago.

          “It looked like the ‘Invasion of the Body-Snatchers,’” Lavin said. “It was a group of zombies I didn’t recognize. In the second half, we returned to form.”

          JaKarr Sampson scored seven of his nine points in a 15-6 St. John’s run to open the second half and take a 48-44 lead. From there, the game remained close until Seton Hall’s Fuquan Edwin, who scored 25 points, converted a three-point play for a 67-63 lead with 3:10 left to play.

          But St. John’s held the Pirates scoreless on their last five possessions. The Red Storm tied it at 67 on a Sampson dunk with 1:41 left. Fuquan had an open three with 27 seconds left and missed it instead of looking inside where the Pirates had dominated.

          “We were going to run a pick and roll and let Sterling [Gibbs] create, but St. John’s switched on the pick and roll,” Willard said. “It was good defense by them. Fuquan took a shot. I’ll live and die with it.”

          On this night, Edwin was 2-for-10 from three-point range, and the Hall was 4-for-20. Bad choice. St. John’s freshman point guard Rysheed Jordan then ran the clock down while waiting for D’Angelo Harrison (12 points) to come off a screen. But instead of passing to Harrison, Jordan threw a bounce pass to Obekpa under the basket, and he drew the foul.

          “He’s as exceptional a passer as anyone I’ve coached at this stage of his career,” Lavin said of Jordan. “His judgment and precision are first-rate. Rysheed saw Chris come open…I’m pleased we took another step forward and found a way to win.”

          Contrast the Red Storm’s attitude when adversity struck their season with that demonstrated by the Pirates. Willard said Oliver and Teague were suspended “until their attitude gets better. They showed a bad attitude [Wednesday]" after losing to Marquette on Tuesday night.

          Lavin’s players had plenty of opportunity to quit on themselves during that 0-5 stretch, but they dug in their heels and fought to get better. Now, their season is just getting interesting.

New York Sports