Head coach Steve Lavin said this season was going to be a roller coaster.
Sunday’s game was a ride all its own.
St. John’s trailed Seton Hall by eight in the first half, led by as many as 16 in the second half and then let that lead dwindle to a single point. But the Red Storm emerged victorious 71-67 at Madison Square Garden.
"What I was most proud of," Lavin said, "is they found a way, after Seton Hall went on the run and cut it to one, we went on a run of our own. And that trend is emerging -- finding a way to get the stops, make free throws, and salt a victory away."
Seton Hall opened the game on fire, making eight of its first 10 shots, and five of its first six 3-pointers. The Pirates led for much of the first half, but a late flurry from St. John’s -- capped off by a D’Angelo Harrison trey at the buzzer -- gave the Red Storm a 38-33 lead at intermission.
St. John’s opened the second half on a 13-2 run, making seven of its first eight shots, and led 53-37 with 14:44 remaining. But Seton Hall kept plugging away, and St. John’s turned ice cold. The Red Storm went seven minutes without a field goal, allowing the Pirates to close with 60-59 with 4:22 to play.
Each team had opportunities down the stretch. Seton Hall’s Aaron Cosby and Fuquan Edwin each missed wide-open shots from beyond the arc that would have put the Pirates in front. Harrison, on the other hand, drained a pair of tough off-balance jumpers in the final three minutes to give St. John’s some breathing room, and then four free throws to finish the Pirates off.
Harrison scored a game-high 24 points, and also had a team-high seven rebounds. "Stats are cool and stuff. But I just want to win," Harrison said.
The sophomore shooting guard, who entered the day ranked 16th in the country in scoring (19.6 ppg), boldly predicted at the beginning of the season that this team -- built entirely of freshmen and sophomores, picked to finish 10th in the Big East and coming off a 13-19 record a season ago -- would make the NCAA tournament.
Yet that’s starting to look like a real possibility. St. John’s (13-7) has now won four games in a row, and is 5-3 in the Big East -- tied for third with Pittsburgh, trailing only Syracuse and Marquette.
Yes, they’re taking advantage of a soft part of their schedule, with their past three W’s coming against DePaul, Rutgers and Seton Hall. But St. John’s already has two wins over Top 25 opponents -- and the Johnnies will have the chance to earn at least a couple more in February.
"Coach Lav, he always says we’re just scratching the surface. That’s his motto right now," Harrison said. "We feel the same way."
Freshman Jakarr Sampson’s game continues to mature. The 6-foot-8 swingman scored 19 against the Pirates, shooting better than 50 percent from the field (9-for-16). Sampson aggressively looked for his shot, but didn’t force the issue, repeatedly finding a soft spot in the Seton Hall zone and burying open jumpers.
"I know what I’m good at," Sampson said. "I know my bread and butter is my midrange game."
St. John’s closes January with another very winnable game, against DePaul, at Carnesecca Arena on Wednesday. A victory would give them a 6-3 mark halfway through conference play.
No one would have predicted that at the beginning of the season -- or after the Red Storm were embarrassed by Georgetown at the Garden 15 days ago.
But the Johnnies haven’t lost since.
"We’re trending in the right direction," Lavin said. "With that said, we’re a work in progress."
The ride is definitely on the way up.
Has it peaked? We’ll soon find out.