A scary thought for Big East teams heading into the second half of league play is how good St. John’s might be if it could ever get its act together for 40 minutes.
Steve Lavin’s ultra-talented group of athletes can be scary good at times, as they showed in Tuesday’s 63-60 loss to Creighton. The Red Storm trailed by 18 points with just less than 13 minutes to play before rallying to twice tie the game in the final minute and 37 seconds.
Creighton managed to pull out the win when Doug McDermott buried a 3-point shot with 2.5 seconds to play. McDermott’s heroics sent St. John’s to its sixth loss in eight conference game and left it 12-9 overall.
“I’m proud of the way they came back in a tough environment against a quality team to give ourselves a chance to win the game,” Lavin said. “We just didn’t have enough to get over the hump, and that’s because we had buried ourselves earlier in the game.”
That’s something Lavin and his young squad had experienced before against a high-profile opponent. St. John’s opened the season against No. 14 Wisconsin, fell behind by 18 points in the first half but rallied to close within four late in the game. The Badgers used an 8-0 run to pull out an 86-75 win.
Facing second-ranked Syracuse in mid-December at Madison Square Garden, St. John’s trailed by a dozen points in the first half before coming back to take three leads in the second half. The Red Storm couldn’t seal the deal, and Syracuse escaped with a 68-63 win.
Then came Tuesday, when the Bluejays appeared headed for another double-digit home victory before St. John’s roared back in the closing minutes.
“It’s an admirable trait that this team has, to fight back,” Lavin said. “We’re resourceful, but unfortunately, the downside of that is that we’re digging holes that are tough to come back from.
“When you give a team like Creighton an 18-point lead, it’s going to take a remarkable comeback to give yourself a chance to win.”
Lavin has assembled a physically gifted team, and the Red Storm used their athleticism in forcing Creighton into mistakes that helped fuel the rally. St. John’s finished with advantages of 18-0 in fast-break points and 21-4 in points off turnovers.
Where St. John’s came up short against Creighton, as well as in several other losses this season, was in its ability to put the ball in the basket from anywhere beyond point-blank range.
The Red Storm made 13 of 15 shots Tuesday that were either layups or dunks. Their other 41 attempts produced just 11 baskets (27 percent shooting), and St. John’s made just 1 of 10 shots from beyond the arc.
The Red Storm rank seventh in the league in field-goal percentage and eighth in 3-point percentage. Their lack of shot-making ability stresses other aspects of their game, and their athleticism isn’t always enough to bail them out of jams.
After the close call, Creighton coach Greg McDermott was asked how dangerous St. John’s might be in mid-March at the conference tournament if it could find a way to fire on all cylinders.
“I think they’re a dangerous team right now,” McDermott said. “This is a very talented and capable basketball team. They’re getting better.
“I think I heard coach Lavin say in December that this is going to be a good team in February. Well, they’re a good team before February.”
After opening league play 0-5, St. John’s bounced back to post Big East wins over Seton Hall and Butler. Its last three conference losses have come by a combined six points.
Of the 10 players who saw action for St. John’s against Creighton, forward Orlando Sanchez was the only senior. Forward JaKarr Sampson was last season’s Big East rookie of the year. Point guard Rysheed Jordan will contend for the award this season.
Lavin believes his young squad has improved and will continue to get better as it matures during the stretch run.
“We are playing better,” he said. “The second half of league play, in theory, will be a bit more favorable for us. We’ve played five out of our first eight Big East games on the road.
“We’ve definitely faced the brunt of the toughest part of out schedule.”