It wasn’t pretty -- but it will go down in the record books.
St. John’s barely beat a struggling and shorthanded Fordham squad on Saturday, winning 58-47 at Madison Square Garden.
But the game will be remembered for the performance of St. John’s freshman center Chris Obekpa, who shattered a school record with 11 blocked shots, in just his 10th college game.
The 6-foot-9 Obekpa actually set a new record in his St. John’s debut, blocking eight shots against Detroit on Nov. 13. That mark didn’t last very long.
“Nothing,” said the soft-spoken Obekpa, when asked what was going through his mind as he swatted shot after shot Saturday night “Just play good defense, and it’ll come to you. That’s it.”
“I’ve never in my 25 years as a coach -- assistant coach, head coach, broadcaster, back to head coach -- I’ve never seen anybody quite like Chris,” said St. John’s coach Steve Lavin. “Because he doesn’t have the 7-foot-1 Tyson Chandler size. But the combination of his basketball intellect, and his length and timing, is what separate him from anyone I’ve seen.”
Lavin was fortunate to get a strong defensive performance from his team on Saturday, because the Red Storm were woeful offensively.
St. John’s shot just 9-for-34 (26.5 percent) in the first half, and trailed 27-24 at intermission. For the game, the Red Storm shot 20-for-61 (32.8 percent) from the field, and 16-for-29 from the foul line (55.2 percent).
But Fordham was even worse, shooting 19-for-66 overall (28.8 percent), including 8-for-38 in the second half (21.1 percent).
“I think in the second half their length bothered us,” said Fordham coach Tom Pecora, whose team dropped to 1-8. “I think we didn’t show enough poise in our shot selection, and that hurt us.”
St. John’s star guard D’Angelo Harrison had his second straight subpar game, shooting 3-for-12, and finishing with 14 points. Freshman Jakarr Sampson got off to a slow start, but picked it up in the second half and finished with a double-double (16 points, 10 rebounds).
Lavin attributed the poor start, at least in part, to it being the Red Storm’s first game of the season at Madison Square Garden. “I think early, our newcomers in particular had some jitters,” Lavin said.
“When you step on the court, it’s just, like, blinding -- just the lights and the stage is on, and all the history that has happened on the court,” said Sampson. “It’s just big-time.”
The Red Storm improved to 7-3, but Lavin has plenty of things to worry about. His team entered the game shooting 63.6 percent at the charity stripe (ranking them No. 286 in Division I), and that number will drop even lower.
St. John’s was also outrebounded by Fordham, 56-40, including 24-17 on the offensive glass.
“We have to do it by committee. … Because we don’t have that traditional wide body,” Lavin said, when asked about rebounding. “More than anything, I think it’s continuing to have an awareness and amplify the sense of urgency from all five players to rebound, similar to gang tackling in football.”
But one thing’s for sure -- Lavin has a game-changer on defense in Obekpa. The freshman now has 49 blocked shots in 10 games -- that’s the second-best average in college basketball, behind only Kansas center Jeff Withey.
The NCAA record for blocked shots in a single game? Sixteen, set by Alabama A&M’s Mickell Gladness back in 2007.
Obekpa was asked if he thinks he can get 15 or 20 blocked shots in a game. “Yeah, that’s what I’m hoping to do,” Obekpa said.
Mr. Gladness might have reason to worry. Just like the rest of the Red Storm’s opponents.