4:14 pm Feb. 8, 2013
Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden, St. John's faced precisely the kind of game they needed to win to maintain their N.C.A.A. tournament hopes.
St. John's, since an early season filled with bad out of conference losses to teams like University of San Francisco and U.N.C.-Asheville, has overcome a 1-3 start in the Big East. And though their biggest tests are still to come, beating a Connecticut team Wednesday night that had won three straight was a necessary hurdle to their upcoming schedule to even matter.
That St. John's did this, winning 71-65, is only part of the story. How they did it is every bit as important, suggesting a broad base of talent coming of age in time to help with the final push toward an at-large bid.
St. John's faced Connecticut without Jamal Branch, the team's starting point guard. Branch has the Red Storm offense functioning at another level since he became eligible in late December, and had been playing 30-plus minutes in most of the St. John's games until a knee injury knocked him out of Saturday's loss to Georgetown.
The team's leading scorer, D'Angelo Harrison, has been playing through a swollen ring finger on his right hand, sat for the first eight minutes of the second half, a period in which Connecticut erased a 15-point deficit and took a 53-51 lead with just over five minutes left.
At that point, Chris Obekpa, the team's (and second in the country) leading shot blocker, fouled out. St. John's would need to defend Connecticut without Obekpa's presence as a safety net.
But that's exactly what St. John's did, forcing Connecticut to take three-point shot attempts in their subsequent three possessions. Meanwhile, St. John's got a layup from Phil Greene IV, then Greene found JaKarr Sampson for an open jumper, then Sampson found Harrison for a three that put St. John's ahead, 58-53 with 2:38 left.
That allowed St. John's to take control of the game. But there was little reason to expect the final few minutes would be drama-free; they're shooting 64 percent from the free throw line this season, 307th of the 349 Division I teams.
Here, too, Steve Lavin's young group showed some maturity. They made 17 of 19 free throw attempts over the final 9:49 of the game. Connecticut never got the chance to re-enter the fray once the St. John's defense and offense coalesced.
The win improved St. John's to 15-8 overall, 7-4 in the Big East. The bigger tests remain: five of the final seven games St. John's has left are against ranked teams, beginning Saturday at ninth-ranked Syracuse.
This is actually a mixed blessing. St. John's entered Wednesday's game against Connecticut with an Ratings Percentage Index ranking of just 59; usually, an at-large bid requires a number in the 30s or 40s. So the difficult schedule will improve their strength of schedule, which is a vital component of R.P.I., while offering ample opportunities to earn the kind of win that will impress the committee.
Still, St. John's needs to win at least three of those seven games to earn a winning record in the Big East conference, so those games against ranked teams aren't just a luxury. They'll need to get at least one, maybe two to feel secure by Selection Sunday. Beating Connecticut made that task considerably more manageable.
Branch is a possibility to return against Syracuse; Harrison is expected to keep playing.
But the collection of young talent Lavin has may be coming together at just the right time. They cannot be dismissed as a one-dimensional team as they were for much of the first semester rising or falling on the strength of Harrison's offense alone.
Entering this final stretch, St. John's looks like a legitimate contender.
"You have to protect home court and we did," Greene IV said following the game. "It's a tough task ahead and we'll be ready for it."