By Joseph Staszewski
St. John’s was more concerned with what could have been instead of patting itself on the back for its best two performances of the season and the first real signs it is an NCAA tournament team.
The Red Storm had 10th-ranked Gonzaga on the ropes in the final minutes before falling 73-66 in the NIT Season Tip-Off championship game last Friday night at Madison Square Garden. St. John’s, which beat Minnesota in the opener, got as close as 69-66 on a second straight 3-pointer by Phil Greene IV with a minute remaining in the game.
“We felt we should have won the game,” said Greene, who scored a game-high 20 points. “We fought. We played hard. It just didn’t go our way.”
The Johnnies, who trailed by 15 early in the second half, had two chances to draw even. Rysheed Jordan, who had 18 points and nine turnovers, was blocked near the baseline on a drive with 25 seconds left. Greene forced a turnover to get St. John’s the ball back, but Harrison was called for an offensive foul. Harrison had 15 points on just 4 of 16 shooting.
St. John’s (4–1) dug itself a hole after center Chris Obekpa picked up his fourth foul with 16:12 to go in the game. It led to the Johnnies, which lack depth in the frontcourt, to go small against a Gonzaga (6-0) team that plays three players 6-foot-10 or taller.
Greene buried a 3-pointer to pull St. John’s with three on the next possession, but Gonzaga went on a 13-1 run to go up 53-38. St. John’s settled for too many jumpers and Red Storm coach Steve Lavin also didn’t like the ease with which Gonzaga got to the basket.
The Red Storm’s smaller lineup, which included Jamal Branch, eventually caused problems for the Zags as it became more aggressive. When that changed, so did the game.
“Coach emphasized that we attack the rim just like they were,” Green said.
Sir’Dominic Pointer epitomized St. John’s attacking mentality and sparked a 19-9 run that made it just 62-57 with 3:24 remaining. He had nine points, nine rebounds, five assists and four steals. The Red Storm managed to be even with Gonzaga on the boards, to no surprise to Zags coach Mark Few.
“They are quick. They are athletic. They are opportunistic and strong hands,” he said. “They go after it.”
What St. John’s wasn’t able to get was a second resume-building win for the NCAA tournament. Few think the Red Storm have the ability to make the big dance after watching his team battle with them. The Red Storm isn’t worried about that just now, just the opportunity it missed.
“We expect to win,” Lavin said, “so there is disappointment we didn’t finish it off.”