By Anthony Bosco
The St. John’s Red Storm left to take part in the annual Great Alaska Shootout as a team without a distinctive identity. With just a single game under their belt, the Red Storm players had yet to jell and seemed in need of something to pull them together.
Somewhere along the way, it happened. Following a disappointing 65-58 loss to Gonzaga in the opening game of the tournament, St. John’s came together, gutting out a hard-fought 66-63 win over Oregon State and blowing out the Tennessee Volunteers, 69-55 in the fifth-place game Saturday.
Before the tournament, head coach Mike Jarvis knew what he wanted to come away with.
“The thing that we are going to learn most about, I hope, is us,” Jarvis said.
Judging by the way the team improved over the three games and the subtle changes in the line-up and bench rotation, Jarvis learned a great deal about this year’s version of the Johnnies.
The Red Storm team that took the floor against Gonzaga Thanksgiving Day was certainly not the team that left the floor Saturday with its second win of the tournament, over Tennessee. The improvement over such a small amount of time was dramatic.
Against the Bulldogs in the tournament opener, the Red Storm started strong, racing out to a double-digit lead in the first half before allowing a last-second three by Dan Dickau close the gap to seven at the half. From then on St. John’s was simply trying to hold onto a lead that seemed destined to slip away.
As it had much of last year, the Storm struggled against a 2-3 zone defense. Junior guard Marcus Hatten, who finished with a game-high 19 points, was just 7-for-27 from the field, adding eight rebounds, five assists and five steals. But once Gonzaga got close in the second half, Jarvis went with offense first, using sophomore forward Kyle Cuffe at center instead of Abe Keita, who had three first-half blocks.
The sharp-shooting Bulldogs took advantage and won going away, 65-58.
Still shell-shocked after their first defeat, the Red Storm seemed sluggish in the opening half of their second-round game against the Oregon State Beavers, falling behind 35-26.
But instead of closing shop, the Johnnies rebounded behind the play of senior captain Anthony Glover (16 points, 10 rebounds) and stormed back in the second half. With solid play from freshmen Eric King and Tristan Smith down the stretch, St. John’s took the lead in the final minutes and held on for the win.
Smith, who hit the go-ahead shot to erase a 13-point deficit, saw the most playing time of his brief collegiate career in the win, scoring five points, with two rebounds and two steals in 20 minutes. King played 19 minutes, pouring in nine points with eight rebounds.
At the same time, some Red Storm regulars from a season ago saw their minutes drop off, as Willie Shaw played just 11 minutes and Sharif Fordham played just 14.
Jarvis rewarded Smith with a start in the tournament finale, which moved Hatten, who had played the point guard slot for the first three games, back to his natural shooting guard position. The impact was swift and dramatic.
With Hatten free to shoot and play aggressive defense, St. John’s dominated. The team went on a 15-3 run to take a 23-11 lead midway through the first half and went up 40-19 on a Hatten layup with just under five minutes remaining before the half. St. John’s went into the locker room with a 42-25 advantage.
Hatten was a force throughout, finishing the game with 21 points, seven assists and eight steals. Smith chipped in with nine points, four rebounds and three assists in 29 minutes and the normally foul-prone Keita, who had just one personal , had five points, six rebounds and four blocks.
Alpha Bangura and Glover both started, but struggled, combining for just 10 points and six rebounds. Shaw and King scored eight and seven, respectively, off the bench.
In retrospect, Jarvis’ comment before the tournament, rang true, even though the team came home from its 5,000-mile journey with no trophy to show for it, just respect and a new-found identity.
“You obviously want to win, but the most important thing is you want to get better,” the coach said. “There’s no reason why you can’t win and get better at the same time.”
The Red Storm (3-1) returns to action Saturday, Dec. 1 at Madison Square Garden against the Fordham Rams in a game slated to tip-off at 2 p.m. The Storm dropped a 68-67 decision to their Bronx rivals last year.
Reach Sports Editor Anthony Bosco by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 130.