With Lavin watching, SJU way off vs. L'ville

NEW YORK -- Steve Lavin was back at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night -- not coaching, but watching his St. John’s Red Storm from a luxury box.

He may have wanted to cover his eyes, especially in the first half.

St. John’s suffered through a dreadful shooting night, making just 18 of 64 attempts from the field -- 28.1 percent -- in a 73-58 loss to No. 10-ranked Louisville.

After jumping out to an early 8-2 lead thanks to a couple of treys by D’Angelo Harrison, the Red Storm went ice cold. How cold? St. John’s missed 27 of 28 field goal attempts from the 15:55 mark until God’sgift Achiuwa’s layup with 25 seconds left before intermission.

The Red Storm were 5-for-35 overall in the opening 20 minutes -- 14.3 percent -- and trailed 29-18 at the break. They never got closer than that in the second half.

When asked what he was thinking during that painful first-half stretch, interim head coach Mike Dunlap joked, “Get a drink of water. My mouth’s dry,” before getting serious. “Some of those shots -- let’s say half of them -- were very good shots, they’re point-blank. And also you give credit to Louisville for contesting the other ones. Louisville’s a very good defensive team.”

Indeed, the Cardinals were ranked No. 10 in the country in field goal defense (36.6 percent) and No. 26 in scoring defense (58.8 ppg) coming into the game. And their full-court pressure and half-court zone gave the Red Storm trouble at times, even though the St. John’s turnover total (12) was respectable.

“Sometime the press does things that you don’t notice,” said Louisville coach Rick Pitino. “It doesn’t necessarily turn you over, it doesn’t necessarily create good opportunities for you, but what it does is takes your legs out shooting the ball. And we knew they had a short bench, we knew they were young, so we wanted to try and exploit that.”

It’s hard to argue with Pitino’s logic, although both Dunlap and the St. John’s players said fatigue wasn’t a factor -- even though Dunlap continues to use just seven players, and St. John’s played a tough game at UConn three days ago.

“Nah, we’re in good shape,” said Phil Greene, who shot 0-for-9. “We practice hard for games, so we were ready to play.”

Harrison was the bright spot for St. John’s, with his third 20-point outing in the past four games. The freshman shooting guard scored 24, on 8-for-18 shooting, and also had a team-high eight rebounds.

Moe Harkless was the only other St. John’s player in double figures, with 12 points on 4-for-13 from the field.

“It’s definitely very frustrating,” said Harkless of the loss. “We just gotta keep working, and eventually shots are gonna fall. Unfortunately they weren’t falling today when we needed ‘em to fall, especially in the beginning of the game.

“We just gotta do a better job of getting to the rim. I think we shot too many 3s to start the game off.” (St. John’s made just two of 16 from beyond the arc, missing its final 13 attempts.)

Dunlap focused on the positives after the game -- including the fact that the Red Storm didn’t give up when Louisville extended its lead to 26, 69-43, with just under five minutes to play. St. John’s answered with 11 straight points from there, to help make the final score more respectable.

“We had every reason to let go of the rope, every reason to let that thing be a 30-point blowout,” said Dunlap. “My point is, the attitude of the players is very good, our fitness is good.”

Nevertheless, the loss drops St. John’s to 7-7 on the season, 1-2 in Big East play. Exactly one year ago, on Jan. 3, 2011, St. John’s upset No. 13 Georgetown 61-58 at the Garden -- its first win against a ranked opponent in two years, landing Lavin a live “SportsCenter” interview the next day.

On Jan. 3, 2012, St. John’s dropped to 0-5 against ranked opponents this season, and Lavin watched from upstairs as he continues to recuperate from prostate cancer surgery.

“I’ll be going back on the road to recruit Thursday so this was an opportunity on the calendar to attend a game and support the team,” Lavin said in a statement released to the media during the game. “I will continue a modified schedule with duties that include being at practices, recruiting the 2012 class and attending certain games.”

While Lavin hits the road again, St. John’s will prepare for back-to-back road games against 11-3 Cincinnati and 12-2 Marquette over the next eight days in the merciless Big East.

Perhaps the Red Storm will get some encouragement from Pitino’s comments about them after this game.

“The good thing is, they’re learning their lessons right now,” said Pitino. “And they have gotten better from the first time I watched them to now. They have gotten a lot better.

“The future is very bright, very rosy for them. And they’re gonna have some nights where they’re gonna do great things.”

Tonight just wasn’t one of them.