For a while the St. John's Red Storm were having themselves quite a time in the Brooklyn Hoops Winter Festival at Barclays Center. Steve Lavin's group, playing its last lower-tier opponent before the gauntlet of the Big East starts, was up 14 points in the second half before the gas pedal was let off and the Columbia Lions suddenly crashed the party.
Sure, the Red Storm (9-3) hung on to beat Columbia, 65-59, but a 17-2 run by the Lions made them sweat it out until the bitter end. A 48-34 lead for the Johnnies quickly turned into a 51-50 deficit. Three straight 3-pointers by the Lions helped turn the momentum in the game to the point that St. John's looked like it could be on the verge of an embarrassing loss. But luckily for Lavin, JaKarr Sampson scored 4 quick points and the Red Storm put the game away for good by countering the Lions' run with their own 9-0 outburst.
Sampson, the sophomore big man enjoying a nice follow up season to his 2012-13 Big East Rookie of the Year campaign, finished with 11 points, 5 rebounds, and 3 blocked shots. In fact, the nation's top shot-blocking team swatted 8 Lions attempts on the night. Sampson finished a few points behind D'Angelo Harrison's 15 -- the junior guard nailed 5 of 9 shot attempts and even went 4 of 5 from the free throw line in the victory.
And despite the near collapse, and the fact that an Ivy League team was within striking distance in the final minute of the contest, make no mistake: St. John's as a team sees only the positive in how it defeated Columbia. Afterwards Lavin was boastful about how this collection of Red Storm is different than the last few he's had.
"Our maturity was on display at the end of the game. This is the type of game we would have lost the past two years. It was a game of runs and I was impressed with our maturity in responding to the Columbia's final run. Down the stretch our team showed poise and purpose in going on a run of our own to salt the victory away."
The loss knocked the Lions down to 7-6 on the year, but they had won three of their last four coming into the game at the Barclays Center. It was just last month that Columbia nearly beat Michigan State in East Lansing while the Spartans were ranked No. 1 in the country. So it's easy to see why the Red Storm may have struggled to put away it's perceived lesser opponent.
Guard Grant Mullins, who hit three 3-pointers, led Columbia with 17 points, while forwards Alex Rosenberg and Luke Petrasek finished with 13 and 12 points respectively. And as a team the Lions made 9 of their 18 3-point attempts -- an X-factor of sorts that keeps the usually outmanned Ivy Leaguers in games, and something Harrison says his team was expecting.
"We knew Columbia was a great team. They were up two against Michigan State with just a couple minutes to play. We scouted them well. We knew they were going to make a run, and we cut it off and pulled out the victory."
But while the big takeaway may have been the resiliency shown, there clearly is a lot to digest in this narrow win for St. John's. Specifically, the heartburn inducing free-throw shooting. As in the Johnnies have a lot of work to do at the charity stripe. On Saturday, in an arena where they've already played two times in this season, the Red Storm missed 14 freebies, 12 of 26. Throw in a couple more points from the line and the Johnnies aren't biting their nails so frantically at the end of this one.
And the other point of concern for Lavin, one that's been there practically all season so far, is the offense. Harrison has been the leader and Sampson has been getting it done in the paint, but that third or even fourth scorer has just not been a reliable option to this point. Orlando Sanchez, who very well may be that choice as the junior college transfer has now score in double figures in three of the last five games, contributed 12 big points for St. John's. But as conference play hits, Sanchez or Sir'Dominic Pointer, who only had one field goal on his way to 4 points against Columbia, have just not been consistent enough to be considered real threats.
Certainly there is nothing there that can't be overcome, but for a team with a decent amount of experience, and with visions of grander achievements than beating Columbia in Brooklyn, these are issues that need correcting sooner than later. Of course, as Lavin pointed out after the game at the Barclays Center, there are plenty of games ahead to find that right rhythm.
“I love our team. I like our versatility and depth. There a number of areas where we need to improve, but as I’ve said consistently by February we will hit our stride. We believe we can surprise some folks along the way but by the second half of league play we have the potential to develop into a dangerous team.”
It may be getting closer to putting up or shutting up for St. John's, however. The Big East slate takes the Red Storm to Cincinnati, Ohio on New Year's Eve to face new league mate Xavier (12 p.m.; Fox Sports One). The Musketeers (10-3) lost all three of their games at the Battle for Atlantis last month, but are currently on a five game winning streak, with victories over Cincinnati, Alabama, and Wake Forest -- and they haven't lost a game at home so far this season.
Beating middling teams in Queens or Brooklyn is one thing, but going on the road and earning a victory against a solid opponent is an entirely different animal. Lavin thinks this team is special but now it will really have to prove it because the there will be no room for error, no taking the foot off the gas during Big East play.