NEW YORK - It wasn’t that long ago that St. John’s was left for dead, sitting at 9-8 overall and 0-5 in the Big East following a double-overtime loss at Providence on Jan. 16.
Since then, the Red Storm have been on a tear, winning six straight and nine of 10 to re-enter the NCAA Tournament picture following Tuesday evening’s 77-52 win over Butler at Madison Square Garden.
The final score would indicate a dominant St. John’s performance, but minus Chris Obekpa, the Red Storm trailed the Bulldogs by three at halftime. With all of that work over the last month in danger of going by the wayside, St. John’s head coach Steve Lavin did not see the need to rant and rave.
Instead, he only saw fit to remind his players of the work they had put in to make it all the way back to this point.
“If we don’t understand by now that we were 0-5 and 9-8 a month ago, and the reason we got to this point was our hard work, and our cohesive approach, and playing the game the right way and do we want to throw away the opportunity to do something special this year,” Lavin said. “We worked so hard to position ourselves to do something unique. It wasn’t so much a fire and brimstone, it was more a conversation.”
Whatever that conversation entailed, it worked as St. Joh’;s came out of the locker room and ripped Butler with JaKarr Sampson leading the way. The 6-foot-9 wing scored 14 of his career-high 23 points in the second half to go along with eight rebounds in 31 minutes as the Red Storm outscored the Bulldogs, 47-19 after halftime.
Defensively, St. John’s limited Butler to 20 percent shooting in the second half and held Butler star forward Khyle Marshall to zero points and zero rebounds after he went for 16 points and seven rebounds in the first half.
Marshall and his teammates made a concerted effort to attack the paint early and often without Obekpa to guard the rim, but Sampson and Co. put an end to that coming out of the locker room.
“Our misses led to their transition and when the game gets going up and down, St. John’s is really good,” Butler head coach Brandon Miller said. “St. John’s is playing very good basketball right now. If you watch their games over the past four or five games, not only are they winning games, they’re winning by a lot. They’re one of the best teams in the Big East right now.”
ESPN’s Joe Lunardi currently has St. John’s as one one of his ‘Last Four In’ for the NCAA Tournament as a No. 12 seed in the South Region and slated to face fellow-No. 12 seed St. Joesph’s in a play-in game. That standing is less than steady, but the Red Storm’s next game is an opportunity to make a real statement.
On Saturday, they will travel to Wells Fargo Center to take on No. 9 Villanova, which moved to 23-3 overall and 11-2 in the Big East with a double-overtime win at Providence on Tuesday night. A win there to make it seven straight and 10 of 11 would likely put St. John’s in solid NCAA Tournament standing, at least for the time being.
“It’s very big,” Sampson said. “Villanova is tough place to play, they’ve got a really good fan base and they’re a tough team right now. They lost to Creighton (for the second time on Sunday), but they got the win over Providence tonight. They’re a tough team and a physical team, so that’s gonna big if we can go down there and get that win.”
The Wildcats defeated St. John’s, 74-67, on Jan. 11 at Madison Square Garden.