NEW YORK -- St. John's won a game Saturday but narrowly avoided national embarrassment.
The Red Storm trailed Division II San Francisco State for most of the second half, but finally regained the lead with under a minute remaining and dodged two bullets in the final seconds, winning 82-80 in their exhibition opener at a half-full Carnesecca Arena.
D'Angelo Harrison, who scored a game-high 29 points, hit the game-winning jumper with 17 ticks left. The Gators had two good looks afterward that would have put them in front, including a 3-pointer at the buzzer. But both shots were off the mark.
San Francisco State shot 51.6 percent (32-for-62) in the game, including too many layups and easy makes. St. John's, on the other hand, shot just 41.3 percent (26-for-63), including some very poor shot choices.
Harrison said St. John's didn't take San Francisco State lightly. Fellow junior Sir'Dominic Pointer, the other player made available to the media, agreed. But he also said this: "We didn't come out ready to play."
Not ready to play, for the first game of the season? That's a little troubling.
Coach Steve Lavin said Pointer was echoing his own message to the team. But Lavin was far from downtrodden after the game.
"Clearly, there are a number of aspects both offensively and defensively that we need to clean up," he said. "While that's discouraging, the good news is, they're correctable flaws or errors."
Lavin clearly still likes his squad. "What concerns you as a coach is sometimes you're not tall enough, you're not long enough, you're not quick enough, you're not skilled enough, you're not deep enough, you're not seasoned enough. That's not the case," he said. "We have those important elements to be successful, but we have to continue to build good basketball habits."
The coach does have reasons to be optimistic. Harrison, who was suspended for the final six games of last season, looked as dynamic as ever. Rysheed Jordan, the preseason Big East Rookie of the Year, scored an efficient 16 points, shooting 6-for-7 from the field. New big man Orlando Sanchez stuffed the stat sheet with nine points, 10 rebounds, four assists and four steals. Last season's Big East Rookie of the Year, Jakarr Sampson, had an off day (1-for-8, three points), but we know he's capable of far better. And shot-blocking sensation Chris Obekpa did not play due to suspension.
But there's no excuse for letting a Division II team shoot better than 50 percent on your home floor.
The regular-season opener against No. 20 Wisconsin is less than a week away. But Lavin is looking further down the road.
"I think this is a team, by mid-January, early February, I expect to be clicking and hitting on all cylinders," Lavin said.
That may very well happen -- it certainly happened in Lavin's first year at the helm, three years ago. But the next three months matter, too. St. John's needs to build a good enough résumé to be attractive to the NCAA tournament selection committee come March.
Luckily, this exhibition won't be part of the St. John's portfolio. The Red Storm won the game, but they certainly didn't impress anyone.