By Anthony Bosco
There were two blowouts Saturday at Alumni Hall. The first belonged to St. John’s, which dominated Providence for 20 minutes in an exhibition of just how good the team can be for stretches.
The second, however, belonged to the Friars, who switched up their defense and shut down the Red Storm during the entire second half.
The end result was a 69-59 loss for the St. John’s University men’s basketball team — marking the first back-to-back losses at Alumni Hall since February 1988. St. John’s lost to Virgin Tech the week before, 71-54.
“Right now we have a tale of two teams, one that shows up and plays brilliantly at stretches in the first half and then another team that shows up in the second half,” said St. John’s head coach Mike Jarvis. “Our mission — our goal — is to go from two to one.”
Providence also beat St. John’s Jan. 8, 75-71.
St. John’s (12-9, 5-6) came into the game off a 52-50 win over Villanova last Tuesday, a game that saw the Red Storm dominate play in the first half but struggle to hold on to the victory down the stretch of the second half.
But what Villanova could not finish, Providence (11-11, 4-7) did. Employing a 2-3 zone that literally strangled the Red Storm offense, the Friars came roaring back. The team scored the first 9 points of the half, completely erasing a 13-point halftime deficit (36-23) at the 11:37 mark on a fastbreak slam dunk by Rob Sanders (19 points, 8 rebounds) to tie the game at 42.
Ryan Gomes (28 points, 6 rebounds) scored on another fastbreak a minute later to put the Friars in front for the first time.
“It was a tale of two halves,” said Providence head coach Tim Welsh. “When we play with energy like that on the defensive end of the floor we can compete with anyone in this league.
“We couldn’t get out of our own way in the first half and in the second half we made a few plays, we made a couple of shots, we got a little energy, we got a little hop in our step on defense and steamrolled into a terrific half of basketball.”
St. John’s had no answer for the Friars’ zone defense, throwing it up from the outside with no success at all. The Red Storm was 5-for-13 in the first half beyond the arc and 0-for-13 in the second half. SJU seemingly had no option inside, other than Anthony Glover (13 points, 8 rebounds, 3 steals).
Junior forward Kyle Cuffe, who did not play in the first half, was benched by Jarvis in the second half for an undisclosed reason. Fellow forward Eric King was limited to just two minutes by knee pain, leaving Abe Keita and Grady Reynolds as the only other big men for the coach to turn to.
Keita, who has never been an offensive option, finished with just 3 points, while Reynolds had 5 in 18 minutes.
Unable to penetrate in the paint — sans the occasional flash by Marcus Hatten (24 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists) — all that was left was the outside shot.
“We were aggressive,” Welsh said of his team’s defense. “They had some open shots, [Willie} Shaw had some open shots, [Elijah] Ingram had some open looks, he just didn’t knock them down. I think our defense was putting them on their heels because they were missing shots and then we were turning them into quick scores.”
The Providence lead ballooned to 60-48 with 3:53 remaining before St. John’s cut its deficit to six on two free throws by Tim Doyle, who played a season-high 17 minutes thanks to Ingram’s sore ankle. Ingram played 27 minutes off the bench and did not score.
Hatten, Shaw and Ingram combined to go 5-for-25 from three, all in the first half. Shaw finished with 12 points.
“I had hoped that we had learned something from the previous game where we played very well in the first half against Villanova,” Jarvis said. “But we still got some lessons to learn, I guess.”
St. John’s stormed out to a 36-20 lead in the first half behind the inspired play of Hatten, who had 18 at the break. SJU shot 40 percent from the field over the first 20 minutes and was out-rebounding Providence 21-14, 10-4 on the offensive glass.
But a small change in defense by the visiting Friars turned the tables in the second half and may well have turned a once promising St. John’s campaign into another lost season for the Storm.
Following the team's hard-fought 66-60 defeat at Syracuse Tuesday, St. John’s will play at Connecticut Saturday at 2 p.m. and then hosts Boston College Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. at Madison Square Garden.
Reach Sports Editor Anthony Bosco by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or call 1-718-229-0300, Ext. 130.