Big Dance still within Red Storm's grasp

Steve Lavin returned to the St. John's sideline on Wednesday to lead the Red Storm to victory. Anthony Gruppuso/USA TODAY Sports

Steve Lavin is back, and St. John’s is still very much in the NCAA Tournament hunt.

Lavin made his return to the bench Wednesday night, after missing two games to be with his family following the death of his father. And the Red Storm snapped a two-game losing streak by beating South Florida, 69-54 at Carnesecca Arena.

St. John’s (16-10, 8-6 Big East) benefited from playing in front of a sellout crowd of 5,602 in its final on-campus game of the season. And the Red Storm were facing the worst team in the conference -- South Florida (10-16, 1-13) has now lost nine in a row, and 13 of 14.

Lavin had mixed feelings about his team’s performance.

“I like where our team is in terms of their mindset, and their togetherness, and (a) good kind of collective synergy,” Lavin said. “But naturally, because we’re young, there’s still things that we need to improve upon. And I thought tonight there were stretches of play where we didn’t play well.”

The Red Storm opened the game in fine form, jumping out to a 14-2 lead, and leading 33-17 at halftime. The margin ballooned to 22 points, 41-19 with 15:49 remaining in the game.

But St. John’s couldn’t finish off the blowout. South Florida made a couple of second-half runs, eventually cutting the deficit to nine, 59-50 with 1:27 remaining, before running out of steam and time.

The Bulls, who shot 25 percent in the first half (7-for-28), almost doubled their shooting percentage in the second half (48.3 percent, 14-for-29). That included burying seven of 14 second-half attempts from beyond the arc.

“There were stretches where I thought we kind of lost our focus or concentration,” Lavin said, “(and) didn’t get a hand up on some of their 3-point shooters.”

“I guess you could say we took a step off the gas,” said guard D’Angelo Harrison.

But there were plenty of positives, too. Harrison (18 points, 4-for-9 from downtown) and forward Jakarr Sampson (20 points, seven rebounds) once again proved a potent 1-2 scoring punch. Swingman Sir’Dominic Pointer had another fabulous all-around game, with 12 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. Pointer also had two steals, and took two charges.

“It’s that Costco kind of performance,” Lavin said. “From every aisle he seems to pick something out and really excel.”

Four players scored in double figures, as there was no selfishness in sight. All five starters took at least six shots from the field.

“We played together,” Harrison said. “We had great chemistry tonight.”

Lavin appeared to be his normal self, despite being just 10 days removed from the loss of his dad.

“It was naturally a good thing just to be back with our staff and with our kids,” Lavin said, “in the flow of the season and moving down the line here and trying to accomplish something special as a group.”

That “something special” is an NCAA Tournament bid, and it remains well within grasp. St. John’s entered play Wednesday night firmly on the bubble -- among the first four teams out of the field, according to ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi.

A win at home over South Florida won’t boost the résumé a whole lot, but a loss would have been a major black eye.

There are four regular season games remaining. Three of them are against Top 25 opponents, starting with No. 20 Pittsburgh at Madison Square Garden on Sunday.

By the time we get to the Big East tournament, St. John’s could be a lock for the Big Dance, or the Red Storm could have virtually no chance. Or, they could be right where they are now -- squarely on the bubble.

St. John’s looked like an NCAA Tournament squad for 26 minutes and change on Wednesday. But that won’t be good enough, starting Sunday.

The coach knows that. Now his job is to drill that into his young team.

“We’re stepping up in class now,” Lavin said. “We can’t have those lapses.”