The St. John’s men’s basketball team was actually winning at one point Sunday afternoon.
But as the Red Storm walked off the court at Madison Square Garden, their early-game lead felt like a distant memory, washed away by another disappointing performance. St. John’s dropped its second straight contest, falling 92-76 to Penn State in the ECAC Holiday Festival.
“Take it for what it is. It’s a bad loss,” St. John’s coach Chris Mullin said. “We’ve got to give credit to Penn State. After games like this, you can really go into a deep, dark place if you let yourself.”
The Red Storm jumped out to a 24-17 lead with 9:47 left in the first half after back-to-back Malik Ellison three-pointers, but Penn State responded with a 35-5 run over the remainder of the period. The Nittany Lions took a 52-29 lead into the break and St. John’s was left searching for answers.
Over the final nine-plus minutes of the first half, St. John’s went 0-for-10 from the field, converted 5-of-9 attempts from the free throw line and turned the ball over seven times. Penn State, meanwhile, went a blistering 12-for-16 from the floor.
“Early on we came out playing well and then we just had a couple of mental lapses,” said forward Tariq Owens. “In terms of effort, as a complete unit and as a team we didn’t bring enough effort. We had to change some things in the second half and adjust our effort.”
Owens and Ellison each provided a slight spark for St. John’s in the second half, combining for 33 points. Owens also tallied 11 rebounds to notch his first collegiate double-double.
The sophomore duo’s effort weren’t enough though and the tandem of Shamorie Ponds, Marcus LoVett and Bashir Ahmed – who have each recorded big early-season performances for the Storm – failed to do much in their first game at the Garden.
“I know when all three of them play like that, we’re going to struggle; but we haven’t seen all three guys struggle like that,” Mullin said. “When three of your top players struggle like that, it’s going to be a tough night.”
Penn State led by as many as 27 points in the non-conference game and, despite attempts at a halftime adjustment, the Red Storm never got closer than 16.
“I feel like it’s just on us whether we want to win or lose,” Ellison said. “I have a lot of confidence in this team. We just have to play with more energy.”
There really weren’t many positives for St. John’s. The Red Storm committed 21 turnovers, went 9-for-24 from behind the arc and allowed Penn State to shoot 50 percent from the floor. It’s another disappointing loss for a St. John’s squad that came up short against LIU Brooklyn Dec. 11 and had nearly a week to prepare for the matchup against the Nittany Lions.
The Red Storm hope to turn things around sooner rather than later, but the questions are starting to loom just a bit larger around a teams that is, still, struggling to find its rhythm.
“We have plenty of games left,” Mullin said. “I’ve seen enough good things from these guys that I’m optimistic. It’s really important to learn from [this loss] and get better from it.”