St. John’s finished January looking like a team that could dance come March.
The Red Storm won their final five games of the month, capped off by a 79-74 overtime win over DePaul at Carnesecca Arena on Wednesday. The victory improved their record to 14-7 overall, and 6-3 in the Big East -- giving them sole possession of third place behind Syracuse and Marquette.
It wasn’t pretty -- St. John’s coughed up a nine-point second-half lead, and had to come from behind in OT against 14th-place DePaul (10-10, 1-6).
The win becomes more impressive when you consider leading scorer D’Angelo Harrison sat out the final 8 minutes, 46 seconds after fouling out.
St. John’s coach Steve Lavin opened his postgame news conference with praise for the Blue Demons, and coach Oliver Purnell. “That was the hardest any team has played against us,” Lavin said. “I’d say Georgetown and DePaul, to this point in the season, are the teams that played the hardest, just in terms of sheer effort.
“We were very fortunate to win tonight.”
St. John’s appeared in serious trouble when Harrison was whistled for his fifth and final foul with 3:46 remaining in regulation. DePaul’s Cleveland Melvin sank both ends of the ensuing 1-and-1, and the Blue Demons had their first lead of the second half, 67-65.
But the Red Storm didn’t wilt with their leading scorer on the bench. In fact, they had a chance to win the game in the final seconds of regulation -- Jakarr Sampson was fouled in the paint, but a video review showed that the hack came after the final horn.
St. John’s trailed by two midway through overtime. But they went on top for good, 75-74, on a Sampson putback with 1:49 left. Sampson and Sir'Dominic Pointer combined to score all 10 St. John’s points in OT.
“It was tough,” Harrison said of having to watch the end of regulation and overtime. “But we have other players on the team, that’s what great about this team. It was a total team effort.”
Harrison’s right. Lavin used 10 players Wednesday, and nine of them scored. All five starters finished in double figures -- Harrison had a team-high 17, Sampson and Phil Greene scored 13 apiece, and Pointer and Jamal Branch each had 11.
Pointer also had a team-high 12 rebounds. “Even though we rely on D’Angelo for a lot, just knowing that we can play without him will help us down the road,” Pointer said. “We can still score the ball, we can still do what we’ve gotta do on offense and defense.”
Critics will point to St. John’s schedule as a primary reason for their lofty perch in the standings. Yes, the team’s past four wins have come against DePaul (twice), Rutgers and Seton Hall.
But the Red Storm have also knocked off two ranked opponents, Cincinnati (on the road) and Notre Dame. And two of their three Big East losses were squeakers -- a two-point defeat versus Rutgers, and an overtime defeat at Villanova.
If those two games go the other way, St. John’s would be in first place at 8-1, after being picked to finish 10th in the preseason.
St. John’s has two potent scorers in Harrison and Sampson, and several players growing into their roles, particularly Pointer and Branch. The Johnnies are leading the country in blocked shots, and had 11 against DePaul. And they’re one of the best teams in the country taking care of the ball, with just five turnovers in 45 minutes Wednesday.
Now comes the toughest stretch of the season -- games against Georgetown, UConn, Syracuse and Louisville to begin next month, with three of those four on the road.
Are the Johnnies ready?
“I think so,” Harrison said. “We have a lot of momentum. Teams are probably still doubting us, because if you look at our schedule we’ve played the bottom half of the teams in this league. [But] we’re gonna come in ready to fight at Georgetown. They have to be ready to play us too.”
Lavin isn’t making any postseason predictions just yet.
“We’re still a major work in progress,” the coach said. “I don’t know if it’s this year or next year, when we really break through. But I’m pleased with the overall direction of the program and the team.”
The bottom line? January taught us that St. John’s is better than most people expected this season.
The first half of February? That’ll show us whether the Red Storm are ready to shock the world.