Johnnies pass first week with flying colors

QUEENS, N.Y. -- Before either of New York’s football teams took the field on Sunday, St. John’s put another checkmark in the win column.

The Red Storm, hosting the Retrievers of Maryland-Baltimore County, improved to 3-0 on the young season after a rather comfortable 82-59 victory.

“There was kind of a methodical, deliberate, mature way that we separated ourselves from UMBC,” said St. John’s coach Steve Lavin. “That’s a hard thing to define, but today I sensed a maturity and poise, the temperament or bearing that you like to see in a team.”

St. John’s trailed at halftime in each of its first two games of the season, versus William & Mary and Lehigh, before pulling out victories in the second half. No second-half comeback was necessary on Sunday. The Red Storm, after trailing 10-3 in the very early going, led 39-34 at the break.

The game turned into a rout after intermission, as St. John’s started out on a 9-1 run and never looked back. The Red Storm led by as many as 32, 82-50, before giving up the last nine points of the game in garbage time.

“There has been a pattern to this point where in the second half we’ve been more dominant,” said Lavin. “I think conditioning may play a part in that, and the cumulative effect of the full-court pressure and the changing defenses and the tempo or pace that we prefer to play at.”

For the second straight game, St. John’s switched from its trademark matchup zone to man-to-man defense for long stretches, with great success -- forcing 20 UMBC turnovers. We could see more of this going forward, though Lavin wasn’t quite ready to commit to that afterwards.

“We’re learning, just as the kids are -- about combinations of players, competencies and abilities, and how to put this particular group of players in the best possible position to be successful,” said Lavin. “The last couple of games, we could see clearly that this team has shown the ability to be pretty disruptive with its man-to-man defense. But again, as we step up and play better competition, you become more informed about your team. And it’s still too early to draw any conclusive generalities about this squad.”

On the other end of the floor, all five St. John’s starters finished in double figures, led by freshman forward Moe Harkless and his 18 points. But the star of the box score was sophomore guard Nurideen Lindsey (15 points, 10 rebounds, 9 assists) who came within a dime of recording St. John’s first triple double since Ron Artest’s against Seton Hall in 1999.

Lindsey, who was billed as a scorer prior to joining the program, said he is making a concerted effort to get other players involved. “It’s very important to me as a player,” Lindsey said. “Got a young group -- gotta keep those guys level-headed, and keep their confidence up, just feeding those guys the ball. They can miss 10 shots straight, I would give it to them for the 11th.”

As a team, St. John’s had 17 assists, after recording just seven in its last game against Lehigh. The Red Storm also made 24 of 30 free throws (80 percent), after missing 27 in their first two games combined.

About the only upsetting thing on the stat sheet? A 16-9 advantage for UMBC on the offensive glass.

The players said they were focused on trying to get off to a better start in this game. “That was something we all talked about for the last couple days, something we talked about pregame -- just coming out to a good start, not always trying to play from behind, coming out with more aggression and energy than our opposing team,” said Lindsey. “And I think we did a pretty good job today.”

Freshman guard D’Angelo Harrison (17 points, 3-for-6 from 3-point range) thinks they can do better.

“We were up in the first half, but we gotta do a better job, period,” Harrison said. “We gotta come out with more fire -- the way we played in the second half, we need to do that in both halves.”

Lavin was happy with the overall effort. “I think there was a breakthrough in terms of our sustained energy and intensity,” Lavin said.

There probably won’t be many blowout victories this season, with four freshmen and two junior college transfers in St. John’s seven-man rotation. And remember, this one came against a team picked to finish near the basement of the America East, and which was missing its best player due to injury.

Nevertheless, the Red Storm passed the first week of the season with flying colors -- three wins, no losses.

Now comes the first big test -- a matchup with No. 16-ranked Arizona on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden.

Lavin must get his new kids ready for that -- if it’s even possible.

“The bright lights of Madison Square Garden, playing a top 20 team, there’s gonna be some butterflies, because it’s dramatically different when you take the floor at the Garden than it is here at Carnesecca,” said Lavin. “I’m sure those first five minutes, our kids are gonna have the natural adrenaline, and the key is, how do we channel that in a productive way if we’re going to be successful?”

For what it’s worth, the players are brimming with confidence.

“We’re doing a pretty good job of getting better every day,” said Lindsey. “I think we’re ready.”