Garrett gives St. John's huge lift in debut

QUEENS, N.Y. -- Amir Garrett made his college basketball debut Wednesday night, and had perhaps the loudest three-point, two-rebound performance a player can have.

It might not look like much in the box score, but the lift he provided this St. John’s team, and basketball program, is impossible to quantify.

Garrett, who became officially eligible to play just a few hours before St. John’s tipped off against Texas-Pan American at Carnesecca Arena, gave the shorthanded Red Storm a desperately needed seventh player to add to their wafer-thin rotation.

And then he gave St. John’s an even bigger boost after the Red Storm’s 66-61 win, when asked why he decided to enroll at the school for the second semester, even after being ruled ineligible in the fall.

“I made a commitment to Coach [Steve] Lavin and to Coach [Mike] Dunlap, the whole coaching staff,” Garrett said. “I said I was coming here, so I couldn’t break my commitment. When things get tough, you don’t run away. You just grind it out, and that’s what I did.”

“I wasn’t gonna give up on them, just like they weren’t giving up on me,” Garrett added. “They could have went and said, ‘Oh you didn’t qualify, we’re gonna go somewhere else.’ They didn’t do it. They stayed with me, I stayed with them.

“This is where I really wanted to be. Out of any program in the world, this is where I wanted to be.”

Three months ago, St. John’s was rocked by the news that three of the nine incoming freshmen Lavin had reeled in as his first full recruiting class, including Garrett -- a haul ranked No. 3 in the country by ESPN, behind only Kentucky’s and Duke’s -- were deemed academically ineligible for the first semester by the NCAA. That left St. John’s with just seven recruited scholarship players for at least the first 10 games of the season.

The other two, JaKarr Sampson and Norvel Pelle, decided to de-commit from St. John’s and look into other schools. Lavin’s top recruit for next season, Ricardo Gathers, rescinded his verbal commitment as well, with the St. John’s situation looking less stable because of potential Big East realignment and Lavin’s absence from the program as he recovers from prostate cancer surgery.

Then on Dec. 5, starting point guard Nurideen Lindsey abruptly announced he was leaving St. John’s and transferring after just nine games, whittling the Red Storm rotation down to just six players. Four of them played the full 40 minutes in a 56-50 squeaker over Fordham on Saturday.

All the momentum Lavin had built up in his first successful season on the job seemed to be disintegrating before our very eyes. But meanwhile, for the past three-plus months, Garrett was focusing on his grades at Bridgton Academy in Maine, and repeatedly expressing his intent to join St. John’s for the second semester. And on Wednesday, all his hard work paid off -- for Garrett, and St. John's.

Dunlap, the Johnnies' assistant coach who remains in charge as Lavin recuperates, said it was Lavin’s decision to give Garrett some playing time Wednesday night, even though he had participated only in the team’s pregame shootaround earlier in the day.

But Dunlap also said he would have done the same thing, if it was his call. “Because one, he’s talent,” Dunlap said. “Two is, we needed the body. And three is, he sacrificed a lot to come in here, so I wanted that first day of the honeymoon to be good for him. For him to know that we appreciated the fact that he showed loyalty to our program, and he’ll never, ever look at this moment like we shortchanged him.

“We had an opportunity to let him know we appreciated who he is and what’s he’s done for our program by showing loyalty in a tough situation.”

Garrett entered the game for the first time with 13:22 left in the first half, and received big cheers from the crowd of 3,821, most of whom were well aware of the situation. He played 15 minutes overall, taking just two shots from the field, but scored his first collegiate bucket on a dunk with a little more than eight minutes remaining in the game.

“He is an exceptional rebounder,” Dunlap said. “Whenever he was open, [we told him] just shoot it or take it to the rack. If you feel like it’s a play you should make, we’ll take care of the mistake later. And be a deflector, get your hands on a lot of balls, take some chances when you’re guarding the ball.”

The 6-foot-6, 190-pound forward from Los Angeles, who was ranked the No. 99 high school senior in the country last season by ESPN, admitted afterward that it was a big challenge playing with such little preparation.

“To be honest, I didn’t know anything,” Garrett said, chuckling. “I was completely lost. But I was just trying to go to open spots -- wherever it was open, that’s where I was trying to move to.”

The entire St. John’s team looked lost for a long stretch in the first half, when an early 19-9 Red Storm lead turned into a 32-24 halftime deficit. St. John’s went the final 10:32 before intermission without a field goal, struggling to create open looks in its half-court offense and getting nothing via the fast break.

In fact, St. John’s trailed by as many as 12, 44-32, with 14:34 left in the game. But the Red Storm battled back, led by forward God’sgift Achiuwa (22 points, nine rebounds) and shooting guard D’Angelo Harrison (21 points, 17 in the second half). Harrison’s deep 3-pointer with 36 seconds left put St. John’s in front for good, 62-61, and the Red Storm held off the stubborn Broncs from there.

Yes, St. John’s barely won at home against a team ranked No. 296 in the RPI, with a record of just 1-9 against Division I competition. But any win is a good win for this remarkably inexperienced squad.

And the truth is, the addition of Garrett means far more than the victory.

For this season, and beyond.