By Joseph Manniello
As the Connecticut and St. John’s men’s basketball teams converged at center court for the tip-off prior to Tuesday night’s 71-53 Red Storm loss at Madison Square Garden, the difference between the two teams was remarkable.
Standing at the center of the World’s Most Famous Arena, David – played by the shorthanded Johnnies, which featured just nine players, including four walk-ons due to suspensions and expulsion that have followed in the wake of the Pittsburgh sex scandal – exchanged hand pounds and hugs with Goliath – the No. 8 ranked Huskies, featuring National Player of the Year Candidates Emeka Okafor (22 points and 18 rebounds) and Ben Gordon (13 points).
With both teams starting out lethargically, the Red Storm and Huskies combined for 40 percent shooting in the first half, as the Johnnies shot just a dismal nine – yes, nine – percent (3-for-32) from the floor.
Leading by just four at the 10-minute mark, the deeper and more talented Huskies used a 25-6 run to take a commanding 33-16 lead at halftime, but let the lead get away during spurts in the second stanza.
Trailing 50-20, St. John’s (6-18, 1-12), wearing throw-back jerseys worn by the 1985 Final Four team, finally caught fire. Walk-on Phil Missere’s breakaway dunk capped a 17-2 run and sent the crowd of 11,736 in a frenzy mode, cutting Connecticut’s overwhelming 30-point lead in half.
St. John’s had a shot, but it proved to be too little, too late, as the Huskies (22-5, 10-3) reverted to their national powerhouse form, holding a comfortable lead for the remainder of the night.
“We slacked off a little bit in the second half,” Okafor said. “When we were building the lead in the first half, we did some really good things. Overall, I think we did a decent job.”
St. John’s was led by sophomore guard Daryll Hill’s team-high 21 points and senior forward Kyle Cuffe’s fifth double-double (16 points and 13 rebounds) of the season.
“I was impressed,” St. John’s interim head coach Kevin Clark said. “I have never been involved in a game where we shot nine percent in the (first) half and still be somewhat in the game. We had some goals that we set and we achieved some of them.”
With just three games remaining in this forgettable season, St. John’s faces Providence this Sunday at MSG. Tip-off is slated for noon,
“Showtime” named Big East Rookie of the Week: After leading the Red Storm to its first Big East win of the season on Feb. 18 against Georgetown at Madison Square Garden and losing by just one at Virginia Tech on Feb. 21, St. John’s sophomore guard Daryll “Showtime” Hill was named Big East Rookie of the Week, the conference announced on Monday.
The former Cardozo standout averaged 24.5 points and three assists last week, leading the Johnnies in both of its contests.
In the Storm’s 65-58 win over the Hoyas, Hill scored a team-high 22 points to go along with three assists and four steals.
Reach contributing writer Joseph Manniello by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 130.