St. John's adds another win to wild season

Head coach Steve Lavin has guided St. John's above expectations this season. Anthony Gruppuso/USA TODAY Sports

NEW YORK -- "Roller coaster" doesn't even suffice to describe this St. John's season anymore.

The Red Storm played yet another wild game at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday, blowing a 15-point second-half lead, trailing by two with less than five minutes remaining, but ultimately prevailing over Connecticut, 71-65.

After the game, St. John's coach Steve Lavin revealed that he is coaching with someone else besides his players on his mind -- his father, who is going through some health challenges in California.

In fact, Lavin flew west last weekend, following the Red Storm's loss to Georgetown, to spend some time with him.

"I know tonight in general on the game, he'd be kidding me about having to reach for his nitroglycerin," Lavin said. "He always carries that, because he's had a bad ticker from his early 40s.

"Through my whole coaching career, he would always talk about saying, 'It was definitely a nitro game.' He'd prefer not to have those nitro games."

Wednesday night's contest was definitely not for the faint of heart.

St. John's dominated the first half, leading 31-20 at intermission. Jakarr Sampson scored 10 of his team-high 18 points in the first 20 minutes, while Marco Bourgault -- starting in place of the injured Jamal Branch -- added nine, shooting 3-for-3 from downtown.

Connecticut guards Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, the team's leading scorers, put up goose eggs in the first half. Napier sat the bench for the first six minutes and change for a violation of team rules.

The St. John's lead ballooned to 39-24 less than four minutes into the second half. That's when UConn woke up from its slumber. A 15-1 run, including three treys by Napier, put the Huskies right back in the ballgame.

UConn even took the lead briefly, 53-51 with 4:28 left, on a pair of Boatright free throws. All the momentum was on the Huskies' side. But instead of folding, this young St. John's team scored nine straight points to regain control for good.

Leading scorer D'Angelo Harrison, who started the game 1-for-10 and was benched for nearly eight minutes in the second half after an early turnover, hit two huge shots down the stretch -- a 3-pointer to push the lead to 58-53, and another jumper to make it 64-59 in the final minute.

Lavin said benching Harrison was a hunch. "Sometimes when a player's going through a tough stretch, if you can help them by sitting them on the bench, they oftentimes see the game through a different prism or lens," Lavin said. "Sometimes like smelling salts, you kind of snap a player back into focus."

"It's his call -- I don't have any control over the substituting," Harrison added. "He made a call, I came back, I delivered, and we won the game."

Harrison also revealed he has been dealing with an injury to the ring finger on his shooting hand, first suffered in the team's win against Notre Dame on Jan. 15.

The X-rays on his finger were negative, but it still might help explain his current shooting slump. Harrison scored a career-low two points, shooting 0-for-9 from the field, against Georgetown last Saturday. Against UConn, he finished with 11 points, shooting 3-for-12.

"It's no excuse," Harrison said. "I've been making shots in practice."

St. John's (15-8) has now won six of its last seven games and is 7-4 in the Big East -- well above expectations.

This win is even more important when you look at what lies ahead -- games again No. 9 Syracuse and No. 11 Louisville, both on the road, in the next eight days.

No wonder Lavin gambled, keeping Sampson and shot-blocker extraordinaire Chris Obekpa in the game despite both picking up their fourth fouls with more than nine minutes remaining.

Obekpa was disqualified with 5:35 left, but Sampson lasted until the final minute, when the game was no longer in doubt.

"I'm a big believer that your best players have to learn to play with three fouls and four fouls," said Lavin, who said he learned this from Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. "And the only way they're going to be able to gain experience is to be in a game and learn how to not foul."

The gamble worked Wednesday night, and it could pay off come March.

Lavin's father should be proud.