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Short-handed St. John's loses heartbreaker

In a season full of ups and downs, St. John’s reached its highest peak on Saturday yet still walked away disappointed.

Missing two of their top three players and trailing No. 15 Marquette by nine points with less than two minutes remaining, the Red Storm made a near-miraculous comeback to send the game into overtime. But the afternoon ended in heartbreaking fashion, when Vander Blue scored a driving layup off the glass at the buzzer, giving the Golden Eagles a 69-67 victory.

Buzz Williams’ bunch clinched a share of the school’s first-ever Big East championship. Steve Lavin’s squad suffered its fourth defeat in a row and finished the regular season in 11th place.

“Really proud of our players for a valiant effort,” Lavin said. “And yet, naturally, we’re very disappointed we weren't able to come away with a victory.”

St. John’s was without both leading scorer D’Angelo Harrison and its best all-around player, Sir’Dominic Pointer. Lavin benched Harrison for the rest of the season last week for conduct detrimental to the team. Pointer was serving a one-game suspension by the Big East for his fight with Notre Dame’s Cameron Biedscheid at the end of a loss in South Bend on Tuesday.

Yet St. John’s jumped in front of Marquette 23-15 with 8:20 remaining in the first half, thanks to eight early points from Jakarr Sampson.

But when Sampson -- the Red Storm's only other double-figure scorer for the season besides Harrison -- exited with two fouls shortly thereafter, St. John’s had no replacement for him offensively. Marquette closed on a 13-2 run and led 28-25 at halftime.

The Golden Eagles continued their onslaught early in the second half, scoring the first nine points and leading by as many as 14 at 41-27. Lavin used two timeouts in less than two minutes. It would have been easy for the undermanned Red Storm to pack it in.

Instead, they gave the Madison Square Garden crowd of 12,474 a thrilling finish.

“We kept saying it the whole game -- just stick with it, keep fighting,” point guard Phil Greene said. “Play hard, play aggressive, and good things will happen.”

Greene was the catalyst, scoring 14 of his game-high 20 points after intermission. St. John’s was back within three at 44-41 with 12:13 remaining. And even when the Red Storm fell behind by nine again, 63-54 with 1:53 left, they didn’t quit. Instead, they clawed back to within two, and then Jamal Branch’s layup with 27 seconds left pushed the game into overtime.

St. John’s had its chances in the extra period. With the game tied at 67 and less than a minute left in OT, both Felix Balamou and Greene missed jumpers that would have given the Red Storm the lead. Then, Blue ended the affair with a gorgeous sweeping lay-in over the outstretched arm of St. John’s' shot-blocking extraordinaire Chris Obekpa.

“It’s really hard,” forward Christian Jones, who scored a career-high 10 points off the bench, said. “After being down by however much, and then fighting back, and then just being there tied in overtime, and then just coming up short in the end. It’s really hard.”

“No one in our locker room is satisfied with moral victories,” Lavin said. “So we try to learn from this, build on the positives and improve upon the areas that hurt us.”

There were positives, to be sure. Greene shot 9-for-15 and displayed outstanding leadership, putting the team on his back in the second half. Sampson, a leading candidate for Big East Rookie of the Year, had another strong performance with 17 points, seven rebounds and four steals.

Obekpa, the second-leading shot-blocker in the country, added seven more swats to his season total. Branch tallied eight assists with just one turnover. And Jones, buried on the bench for most of the season, showed he can contribute at this level.

On the other hand, St. John’s sorely missed Harrison’s 3-point shooting -- the Red Storm were two for 16 from beyond the arc. And they shot just five for 13 from the free throw line.

But if the box score revealed guts, this short-handed St. John’s team would have registered off the charts.

“It’s hard to grade losses. It stinks no matter what,” Lavin said. “But there are aspects that you see in a team’s growth or development, and I think today our kids demonstrated fight.”

“We played our hearts out tonight,” forward Amir Garrett said.

Nevertheless, it’s been a very disappointing finish to the season. St. John’s won five games in a row to wrap the month of January. Just two weeks ago, the Red Storm were still an NCAA Tournament bubble team.

Now, St. John's (16-14, 8-10) will be fortunate just to make the NIT.

Next up? A matchup with Villanova in the Big East tournament on Wednesday, with the winner facing Louisville the following night.

“If we can play the level of basketball that we’re capable of, we’re gonna be in games both this coming week and the following week, wherever the postseason takes us,” Lavin said.

Or the season could end on Wednesday against the Wildcats.

As we saw on Saturday, a valiant effort isn’t always enough.