By Dylan Butler
After some early growing pains, Omar Cook, Willie Shaw and Alpha Bangura have filled the void left by Barkley, Thornton and Postell quite nicely and on Sunday afternoon, in front of a less-than-capacity crowd of 6,838 at the Louis Brown Athletic Center, the trio carried the Red Storm in an 80-71 victory over Rutgers.
It was St. John's second straight win and fifth in the last six games and puts the Red Storm three games above .500 for the first time this season. More importantly, it was the team's first Big East road win, which has been tough to come by this season.
“Especially since we gave one away a week ago in Connecticut, it's even more significant,” said St. John's head coach Mike Jarvis. “You look at the record and it's very significant in college basketball to win on the road. We've come very close to winning both on the road, so I think this is going to be a pretty good road team.”
Game by game Cook is exhibiting more and more composure and is showing some of the reasons why the Brooklyn native was so highly touted at Christ the King High School. While his passing prowess was evident from the start, the freshman phenom has worked on his shot, which was inconsistent at best early in the season. The result? Cook was 5-for-8 from beyond the arc to lead St. John's (9-6, 3-1) with 21 points.
“I just try and go out there and play as hard as I can play,” said Cook, who also had five assists, five rebounds and three steals in 39 minutes and was named Big East Rookie of the Week for the third time this season. “I'm not worried about the hype or being concerned with what other people think, I just try and play as hard as I know I can play.”
What was equally impressive in the Red Storm's seventh straight win over Rutgers (8-7, 0-4) was Cook's defensive work. After Scarlet Knights sophomore guard Todd Billet hit two three-pointers in a span of 44 seconds in the first half, Cook asked Jarvis for the defensive assignment. Despite scoring a game-high 24 points, Billet was quiet in the second half, hitting just one three-pointer the rest of the way with Cook on him. He was 3-for-7 from three against Cook.
“We wanted to win the game and if we allowed Mr. Billet to continue to get shots, we might not have done that,” Jarvis said. “Omar accepts individual challenges defensively as well as anybody I've ever coached. Even though it means it's going to take something away from the offensive end, you have to give a player that privilege if he wants it and 'O' loves a challenge and likes playing against the other team's scoring guard.”
Sharif Fordham also did a good job marking Rutgers senior Jeff Greer, who was 3-for-4 from downtown in the first half. After drawing the assignment, Greer missed his final four attempts. Rutgers, which shot 77.8 percent from beyond the arc in the first half, went 1-for-8 in the second half, a lowly 12.5 percent.
While Cook and Fordham took the three-pointer away from Rutgers, the Scarlet Knights did the same to Shaw, who is second in the conference, averaging 44.3 percent from three-point range. The lanky freshman was 1-for-2 from beyond the arc, but he went back to doing what he did so well in high school; slashing to the hole effectively. The former John F. Kennedy standout had 18 points on 6-for-8 shooting.
“I had to slash because now teams are keying on my three-point shot so I have to change my game up a little,” he said.
Bangura also did a great job of getting to the basket for 10 of his 17 points. It was the athletic sophomore guard's fifth straight game scoring in double figures.
“I'm a lot more confident, just in terms of picking my spots when I'm on offense, trying to be more aggressive, but also trying to play with some poise and patience,” Bangura said.
After St. John's scored six of the game's first seven points, the Scarlet Knights tied the game at 16 on Billet's floater in the lane. But then the Red Storm got out and running on Rutgers and quickly went on a 10-0 run capped by a pair of Bangura free throws to take a 26-16 lead with 6:59 left in the first half.
But led by long range shots by Billet and Greer, Rutgers cut into the Red Storm lead and trailed by just three, 41-38 at the half.
The Scarlet Knights briefly took the lead, 42-41 on a driving layup by freshman guard Mike Sherrod from Paul Robeson High School, but the Red Storm outscored Rutgers 17-6 to take a commanding 58-49 lead with 10:45 left in the second half. Rutgers got as close as four, 66-62, on a made Sherrod free throw, but back-to-back driving layups by Bangura and Shaw extended St. John's back to eight, 70-62.
“We didn't make it hard enough for them, they were quicker to the ball all night,” said Rutgers head coach Kevin Bannon. “They ran off our turnovers….we're not going to beat a St. John's team when you're slower to the ball like that.”
After shooting just 57 percent from the line against Boston College last Wednesday at Madison Square Garden, the Johnnies responded by shooting 72 percent from the stripe. Also key was the Red Storm's rebounding. Led by Cook, Anthony Glover, Kyle Cuffe and Donald Emanuel, who grabbed five boards apiece, St. John's outrebounded Rutgers, 34-23.
“I think right now we're playing with a lot more confidence collectively, opposed to early in the season we had individual guys playing with confidence,” Bangura said. “I think we brought it all together now. I think that's why we're more successful.”
St. John's 73, Boston College 71. Cook nailed an NBA-range three with 34 seconds left and Bangura (14 points, season-high eight rebounds) stole the ball from Kenny Harley to seal the win for the Red Storm last Wednesday in front of 13,392 at Madison Square Garden. Shaw had his first collegiate double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds and Glover added 14 points and four boards.
Next up for the Red Storm are the slumping Villanova Wildcats (10-4, 2-1) who have lost their last two games. Game-time is noon Saturday at Madison Square Garden. The Johnnies will then host the Miami Hurricanes Monday at 7 p.m., also at MSG.