By Stephen Zitolo
St. John’s has been consistently inconsistent this season.
The trend continued on Sunday afternoon at Madison Square Garden as the Red Storm escaped with a 63-56 victory over St. Francis College at the MSG Holiday Festival. The win marked the 1,800th in program history for St. John’s, making them only the ninth program in the nation to reach the historic mark.
“Tonight wasn’t a pretty game, but we will learn from it,” St. John’s Coach Chris Mullin said. “It’s nice to win. But there’s a lot of stuff we need to do better.”
The Red Storm men’s basketball team (5-3) had trouble getting things going early on both ends of the floor. Turnovers continued to hurt the Johnnies on offense as the Terriers (3-5) capitalized on the sloppy play. With a little more than 6:00 left in the first half, the Red Storm were down 23-14 before finally taking control of the game.
St. John’s dominated the remainder of the first half by going on a 19-2 run to return into the locker room with a 33-25 lead. Graduate student Durand Johnson led the charge with 10 of his game-high 19 points during that run. Mullin hopes it is a sign of things to come.
“I think he can develop back into a consistent offensive presence,” Mullin said of Johnson. “He’s been up and down this year and frustrated at times, but the layoff is something you can’t underestimate. I thought [Durand] was big tonight and we will see more of that as the year goes on.”
His club did not pull away from St. Francis in the second half. Ten second-half turnovers almost doomed the Red Storm, as the Terriers made a late second-half run to close within 57-55 with 36 seconds remaining. Johnson again stepped up and sealed the game with a left-wing jumper and later sank two free throws. It was a bounce-back win following a loss to Fordham.
Freshman center Yankuba Sima was also a key to holding off the Terriers. He scored nine points and corralled six rebounds in the half. It was part of his best game to date. Sima, who Mullin called a tough kid, shook off the effects of a dislocated pinky on his right hand in the first half to score 17 points and grab 10 rebounds.
“It was really painful because my finger was dislocated,” Sima said. “But when they put it back in, it was way better. It didn’t affect me at all. I think I played better in the second half.”
Yunus Hopkinson and Antonio Jenifer each scored 10 points for St. Francis, which is coached by former St. John’s assistant Glenn Braica.
Redshirt junior forward Christian Jones pitched in 13 points and nine rebounds to help Mullin get his first victory as a coach in Madison Square Garden. It only added to his collection of fond memories from the World’s Most Famous Arena.
“I love this place,” Mullin said. “I always have and I always will. I think I enjoyed playing here more than coaching, but it was another new experience.”