By Anthony Bosco
Marcus Hatten buried back-to-back three-pointers to pull the St. John’s men’s basketball team to within three of the host University of Connecticut Huskies with 1:09 remaining in regulation Saturday at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, Conn.
But the Red Storm’s furious comeback had no more life, as the Huskies scored the final 5 points of the game to win going away, 77-69.
St. John’s never fully overcame the 18-point deficit it found itself in just more than 5 minutes into the second half, when UConn led 51-33.
The game featured a bevy of subplots including the return of UConn head coach Jim Calhoun, who underwent prostate surgery earlier in the season; the ejection of SJU head coach Mike Jarvis in the second half; an under-the-weather Hatten; the early return of Kyle Cuffe from a one-game benching; and the return of Queens native Taliek Brown to the Huskies’ roster after missing four games with a broken index finger.
Calhoun’s return whipped the hometown crowd into a frenzy before the game even began and the UConn players responded, running out to a 15-4 lead in the first 5 minutes.
St. John’s (12-11, 5-8) didn’t back down to the challenge of the No. 24-ranked Huskies (17-6, 8-4), clawing back into the game before the half. Two free throws by Eric King pulled the Red Storm within three, 33-30 with 1:39 remaining, but 4 straight points before the half gave UConn a seven-point advantage at the break.
The Huskies came out fast in the second half, racing to an 18-point lead behind the play of Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon. Okafor owned the paint against the Johnnies, scoring 13 points, grabbing 12 rebounds and registering 9 blocks, putting him in first place all time among Connecticut players.
Somehow, SJU managed to stay in the game. A three by Cuffe, who was suspended for two games by Jarvis last week but only sat for one, started a seven-point spurt to make the Connecticut lead 11.
A questionable call on Willie Shaw that forced an SJU turnover led to Jarvis’ smacking the scorer’s table and leading to his first technical foul at 12:11. Less than a minute later, Jarvis was still arguing the call and he was hit with a second technical and automatically ejected from the game.
After a three by Gordon, the Storm responded to its coach’s dismissal with a 10-point run to pull within seven, 60-53. And from there on it was dogfight down the stretch, with the Huskies bending but never breaking.
Hatten’s two three-point bombs in the final two minutes got the Storm close, but never over the top.
The Storm’s shooting woes continued. The team was below 30 percent for most of the game before the team’s second-half rally put the final tally at 31.9 percent for the game. The team was out-rebounded 36-30, but it still managed 21 more shots than Connecticut.
Hatten, who played despite being ill, shot 6-for-20, scoring 16 with 6 rebounds and 4 assists. Cuffe added 16 points and 5 rebounds off the bench. Anthony Glover chipped in 9 and Shaw added 8.
Brown, a St. John’s Prep grad out of Lefrak City, played 17 minutes off the bench for the Huskies, scoring 4 points.
The Red Storm, loser of five of its last six, needs two more wins to lock up a spot in the NIT Tournament, but two more wins won’t come easy. After hosting Boston College Wednesday, the team will play the Duke Blue Devils Sunday at Madison Square Garden at noon.
The team wraps up its season with a home game against Rutgers March 2, before traveling to play the University of Miami Hurricanes March 6.
Reach Sports Editor Anthony Bosco by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 130.