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St. John’s NCAA tourney hopes dashed with Big East loss

By Joseph Staszewski

St. John’s won’t likely be dancing its way into the NCAA tournament this season thanks to a performance that was as inconsistent as the team’s season.

The Red Storm men’s basketball team trailed Providence by 17 points in the second half. A ferocious rally, fueled by the Johnnies’ press and D’Angelo Harrison, cut to the lead to just one, but that was a close as SJU got. Fifth-seeded St. John’s was left to suffer a 79-74 defeat to the No. 4 Friars in the Big East tournament quarterfinals Thursday at Madison Square Garden.

“That’s how we play,” Harrison said of the comeback. “I don’t know what took so long.”

The Johnnies, which began the season with the expectations of making the NCAA tournament, appear headed to the NIT for the second-straight year. The Red Storm started the Big East play 0-5. They went 10-3 in the league the rest of the way, and finished 20-12 overall in a tie for third place in the league. St. John’s owns a win over No. 14 Creighton, had a strength of schedule ranked at 48 and are 1-7 against the top 50 teams in the country. That body of work left SJU needing to at least beat Providence to keep itself in position for an NCAA tournament spot, according to experts. Now they are at the mercy of the selection committee.

St. John’s Coach Steve Lavin expects to spend a “low key” Sunday with the team during the NCAA selection show.

“Losing in the first round of your conference tournament is not a good thing when you are trying to make the postseason,” Lavin said

A loss looked assured with Providence up 63-46 with 6:24 left in the game. St. John’s, which began full court pressing, finally responded with a 13-2 run to get within 69-68 on two Harrison free throws with 1:15 to go after a JaKarr Sampson steal. Sampson recorded a block down the other end up but missed a potential go-ahead layup with 39 seconds remaining in the game as the Friars’ Carson Desrosiers defended him.

“I feel like I just missed a shot, you know,” Sampson said. “I feel like I normally make it and I’m disappointed in myself. I feel like I missed a shot.”

Poor shooting, especially at the free throw line, was just one thing that plagued the Johnnies in the loss. Starting center Chris Obekpa played only two minutes because of he racked up two first half fouls and one early after the break. Providence (21-11) controlled the glass during its 14-4 run that pushed its lead to 50-37 early in the second half.

St. John’s did hold Friars’ leading scorer to just one of his 12 points in the first half, but trailed 36-33 at the break. Friars guard Josh Fortune connected on four three-pointers and scored a game-high 24 points. Harrison led St. John’s with 21 points and 10 rebounds, Rysheed Jordan had 17 points and Sampson added 15 points and nine rebounds.

Lavin believed the season wasn’t a disappointment even if his club doesn’t make the NCAA tournament.

“I couldn’t be prouder of a probably any group I coached in my career, Lavin said. “Never had a group dig themselves out of a hole 0-5 in New York City under the bright lights and to finish 10-8 and to be playing the quality basketball that we are at this stage of the year.”

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