Johnnies 'collapsed' in 2012 finale

Chris Obekpa & Co. couldn't end 2012 on a high note, falling to UNC-Asheville. Anthony Gruppuso/USA TODAY Sports

St. John’s ended 2012 on a very sour note.

In its final game of the calendar year, and its final nonconference game of the season, the Red Storm were stunned by UNC-Asheville on Friday, 72-65 at Carnesecca Arena.

St. John’s led by as many as 17 in the first half, and by 15 early in the second half, but couldn’t close out the Bulldogs from the Big South.

“We just collapsed, basically,” said guard Phil Greene.

The Red Storm came out hot, taking their largest lead, 38-21, with 3:13 left in the first half. But UNC-Asheville closed to within 40-30 at halftime.

St. John’s scored the first five points of the second half, to push the lead back to 15. But the Bulldogs erased it all, and then some. Thanks to a 23-4 run, UNC-Asheville went ahead 65-58 with 4:33 remaining.

“We just didn’t handle the prosperity well,” said coach Steve Lavin. “Once we had the lead, we weren’t able to sustain the way you have to if you’re gonna finish off an opponent.”

St. John’s was outrebounded 40-30, including 13-7 on the offensive glass. The Red Storm was outscored 44-28 in the paint, and 17-4 on second-chance points.

In the second half, UNC-Asheville outscored St. John’s 22-8 in the paint, and 12-0 on second chances.

“No one particular aspect of play or no one particular player is responsible for it,” said Lavin. “As a group, we didn’t sustain or finish the game.”

St. John’s did manage to tie it up at 65 in the final minutes. But then the Bulldogs’ Keith Hornsby buried the biggest shot of the game -- a 3-point dagger with a defender draped over him and the shot clock winding down, making it 68-65 with 90 seconds left.

With 32.2 ticks remaining, St. John’s had one final chance to get even, but D'Angelo Harrison threw the ball right into a defender’s hands, sealing the Red Storm’s fate.

“Came off the screen, the lane opened up, I saw Phil in the corner, but the guy made a great play,” Harrison said. “[He] stepped in and got the pass, we lost the game.”

St. John’s also lost the chance to enter Big East play with some momentum. The Red Storm had won two straight and six of seven.

Now they’ll have to stew over this loss for 11 days, until they face Villanova on Jan. 2.

“This one hurts,” said Greene. “But we have a lot of practice days coming up, so we’re gonna get back to the drawing board.”

St. John’s finished the first two months of the season with a record of 8-4. They didn’t play a particularly strong nonconference schedule, and have zero signature wins.

That said, the loss to UNC-Asheville isn’t as embarrassing as one might think. The Bulldogs have made the NCAA tournament the past two seasons, and gave Syracuse a serious scare last year. Four weeks ago they almost knocked off No. 25 NC State, losing 82-80 in Raleigh.

Still, they had never beaten a Big East team in school history.

Harrison scored a team-high 24 points -- his ninth 20-point game already this season. Texas A&M transfer Jamal Branch made his St. John’s debut, and in limited minutes showed he can be a solid contributor.

But those positives were far overshadowed by the loss.

Back in October, Harrison predicted that this team -- picked to finish 10th in the Big East, comprised almost entirely of freshmen and sophomores -- would make the NCAA tournament. Two months later, he’s not backing down from that claim.

“We believe that we can beat some of the top teams to overcome these losses, so it really doesn’t matter,” Harrison said.

The coach remains positive, too.

“I really like this team,” Lavin said. “Even tonight, even though it was disappointing to lose the game, there were stretches of really good basketball.

“School’s in session every day with this group,” he added. “I didn’t have any illusions of this being anything other than a really challenging season. ... You have that degree of youth, it’s gonna be an incredible challenge -- but one that you want, because I love their upside, I love their attitude, I like the group, I like the chemistry.”

The experiment continues in 2013.