NEW YORK -- Two longtime adversaries began a new chapter in their rivalry Sunday, with a familiar result.
Syracuse is no longer a member of the Big East, but it remains a bigger draw at Madison Square Garden than St. John's, and a better team, as evidenced by its No. 2 ranking and 68-63 victory in front of a matinee crowd of 16,357.
The Orange got a strong challenge from the Red Storm, who erased a 12-point halftime deficit to take the lead with eight minutes and change remaining. But Syracuse made all the big plays down the stretch, while St. John's, to put it bluntly, self-destructed.
St. John's coach Steve Lavin did not mince words about his team's performance in the final minutes. "At the end of the game we were atrocious," Lavin said. And he's right.
But first, the first half must be discussed. The Red Storm trailed by as many as 14 before Rysheed Jordan's layup at the buzzer made it 39-27 at intermission. St. John's shot just 10-for-29 (34.5 percent) in the first 20 minutes, was uncharacteristically sloppy (seven turnovers) and allowed Syracuse to shoot 14-for-25 (56 percent).
It's certainly not the first time this team has come out sluggish. This has been a pattern throughout the young season.
Lavin was as perplexed as the rest of us. "I couldn't understand how they could be paralyzed or stymied or tentative," he said, "because this is as good as it gets -- being at Madison Square Garden, playing on national TV, a Sunday, packed house, the energy was palpable."
"I told them, I don't even recognize you," Lavin added. "It's like 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' -- who are you guys? I recruited all of you the last three-plus years, what's going on?"
Lavin challenged his squad to be more aggressive in the second half, and they answered his call. D'Angelo Harrison led the way, scoring from all over the floor, finishing with a team-high 21 points, 14 after halftime. And Jordan played his best game yet, chipping in 13 points, nine after the break.
Harrison's pull-up jumper with 8:26 left put St. John's in front for the first time all day, at 55-54, and the Red Storm had all the momentum on their side.
But then they melted down in the final four minutes.
It started with JaKarr Sampson's two missed free throws with 3:12 to play, which would have tied the game at 62. At the other end, Syracuse senior C.J. Fair (21 points) knocked down a jumper to make it 64-60.
Harrison made just one of two free throws with 2:01 left. Then Fair drained another jumper to make it 66-61, putting St. John's on the ropes.
The knockout blow was self-inflicted, too. After not turning the ball over in the first 18 minutes of the second half, St. John's committed two critical turnovers in the final 82 seconds, giveaways by Sampson and Orlando Sanchez.
"I didn't think we showed the precision or the purpose in terms of finding the open man, trusting one another, and we tried to do it more individually," Lavin said.
"That last four minutes just showed that we still need to grow up," said St. John's swingman Sir'Dominic Pointer.
Pointer's comment is a little startling, considering he and most of his teammates are sophomores and juniors with plenty of minutes under their belts from the past season or two.
That being said, Pointer, Harrison and Sampson -- the three players in the team's postgame news conference -- shared the same mature outlook after the game. They were very subdued, despite the fact they'd nearly knocked off the No. 2 team in the country, knowing they have enough talent to beat them.
"Our group, the way we are, we're not into moral victories," Harrison said. "But we did see that once we played the way we're supposed to play, we went up. So if we'd have done that for two halves, it would have been a different kind of ballgame."
Lavin, too, was far from satisfied. "No, I'm not encouraged," he said. "I would say that we came in expecting to win the game, so we're disappointed we didn't win. This is our home court. And I like our personnel, I like this group, we had a great week of preparation."
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim actually offered the most positive comments about the Red Storm.
"I think St. John's is a much improved team," Boeheim said. "They're more mature, there are more veterans. I think they've got really good players and I think they're going to have a good year."
The season is only five weeks old, but this was St. John's last opportunity to impress in nonconference play. Up next are homes games against San Francisco, Youngstown State and Columbia, followed by an 18-game Big East slate that currently features just one ranked opponent, Villanova.
St. John's needs to figure out how to start fast, and finish. Despite failing in both of those areas, the Red Storm almost pulled off a stunning victory.