NEW YORK (AP) – Steve Lavin had been coaching a very young St. John’s team a certain way for most of the season. It had been an approach of staying upbeat, making sure everything was a positive learning experience. He was treating a team full of 10 first- and second-year players like a team full of 10 first- and second-year players.
Things changed a bit Wednesday night in a 69-54 victory over USF.
“I wasn’t pleased with stretches where we lost our focus and concentration,” Lavin said of a second-half timeout he called when he could be heard over the home crowd, letting his team know he didn’t like what he was seeing. “We lost the concentration we need to put good teams away. But we recaptured the focus and salted the win away. With our schedule stepping up we can’t have those lapses or teams will go on runs and that will make it less likely that we will do something special in March.”
Freshman forward JaKarr Sampson scored 20 points with seven rebounds and sophomore guard D’Angelo Harrison added 18 with five assists and four rebounds as St. John’s handed the Bulls their ninth-straight loss and 13th in their last 14 games.
Second-year swingman Sir’Dominic Pointer added 12 points, 10 rebounds and six assists – marking his third-career double-double and third in the last 10 games – for the Red Storm (16-10, 8-6 BIG EAST), which has now won seven of its last 10. The win moves St. John’s into a tie for seventh in the conference. Marc-Antoine Bourgault was the Red Storm’s fourth double-figure scorer, finishing with 10 points in a performance that included two 3-pointers and his first-career dunk, which delighted the crowd and the Frenchman’s teammates.
It was the first game back for Lavin, who missed two games following the death of his father, Cap, a Hall of Famer from a different USF, the University of San Francisco.
The Red Storm players knew they heard a different Lavin than they had during the season.
“We never thought the lead was in jeopardy but we knew we had to close out the game,” Harrison said of Lavin’s more expressive message to the team during a 30-second timeout. “We had to finish the game and we did that. He was frustrated we stepped off the gas and I’d be frustrated too. He got on us and kept us in the game.”
Sampson, one of the freshmen stepping up for the Red Storm this season, said it isn’t often Lavin gets on them, but “When he does we have to step it up. We are almost at the end of the season and he should expect more out of us and not too make more rookie mistakes.”
Victor Rudd had 18 points and 11 rebounds for the Bulls (10-16, 1-13 BIG EAST), who have a record of 2-13 in the 2013 portion of this season.
St. John’s opened both halves with impressive runs. The Red Storm started the game with a 14-2 stretch that featured two 3-pointers by Harrison and two three-point plays by Pointer. They led 33-17 at halftime as the Bulls shot 25.9 percent from the field (7-of-27), including going 2-of-14 from 3-point range.
The run to start the second half was a more modest 8-2 burst that was capped by Sampson’s short jumper that gave St. John’s its largest lead of the game, 41-19, with 15:49 to play. The Bulls did put together a 13-3 run that featured two 3s by Rudd and one by Javonte Hawkins to keep the second half interesting. The closest UF got was 59-50 with 1:25 remaining. The Bulls were 3-of-12 from the free throw line.
St. John’s finished 6-of-18 from 3-point range, a good performance from the team that entered the day last in the 15-team conference by shooting 30.1 percent from beyond the arc. The Red Storm, which also was last in the league at free throw shooting at 64.4 percent, made 15-of-20 for the game (75.0 percent).
“We played together. We had four guys in double figures. Jakarr got rolling again and Dom almost had a triple-double,” Harrison said. “It was an all-around great team win and the chemistry was good.”
And that means Lavin has them on track for what he has been telling them all season.
“I have to let them know we have a chance to do something special,” Lavin said. “Anything less than our best won’t get it done.”
The game was played in Carnesecca Arena, St. John’s on-campus home since 1961. The sellout crowd of 5,602 was enticed by a bobblehead doll of Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame coach Lou Carnesecca and a halftime recognition of former St. John’s players and coaches. The brief ceremony concluded with remarks from Carnesecca that included a reference to “an octopus wearing roller skates” as a description of a young team.
The Red Storm, which also plays home games at Madison Square Garden, has a 435-82 (84.2 percent) record at the 52-year-old building. St. John’s second-straight home game comes on Sunday, Feb. 24, at noon, as No. 20/22 Pitt visits The Garden (MSG Network).