St. John's narrowly nabs first Big (East) win

Anthony Gruppuso/USA TODAY Sports

NEW YORK -- Finally.

It took until Jan. 23, and it nearly took even longer. St. John’s had Seton Hall on the ropes Thursday, yet almost got knocked out themselves in the final seconds. But the Red Storm hung on to post their first Big East victory of the season, 77-76.

“It was not a conventional ballgame by any means,” St. John’s coach Steve Lavin said. “But given that we were 0-5 [in the conference], we’re not gonna get too caught up in grading the victory, and instead just be glad that we took a step in the right direction.”

Things looked familiar in the early going, with St. John’s falling behind quickly, 13-3. But the Red Storm surged to a 35-29 halftime lead. Orlando Sanchez came out hot, scoring 11 first-half points. Seton Hall committed 15 first-half turnovers.

“The turnovers just killed us,” Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard said. “You can’t give a team -- especially this team, who’s so athletic and so good in transition -- so many easy opportunities.”

The St. John’s lead ballooned to 65-48 with nine minutes remaining -- thanks in large part to a 13-0 run sparked by Jamal Branch and Jakarr Sampson. But the Red Storm squandered nearly all of it.

After the Pirates’ Sterling Gibbs sank two free throws to cut the deficit to 77-76 with 4.9 seconds left, St. John’s forward Sir'Dominic Pointer had trouble inbounding the ball. He ended up hurling it toward the far end of the court, where it was knocked out of bounds by Sanchez.

Seton Hall suddenly had a chance to win the game, going the length of the floor, but Fuquan Edwin had the ball poked away by Pointer -- who else? -- before he could get a shot off. Crisis averted.

Pointer insisted he knew what he was doing on the long pass. “We didn’t have any timeouts, and nobody was open. So I was thinking, just lob the ball, and hopefully somebody’ll grab it,” Pointer said.

Fortunately, Sanchez at least touched the ball, so Seton Hall had to take it out on the far side. And then Pointer saved the day with his defensive play.

“He’s as resourceful a basketball player as I’ve coached,” Lavin said of Pointer. “There are times where it’s frustrating -- sometimes you’re not exactly sure what he’s got in mind. But the beautiful thing is, he’s a great competitor and he finds a way to influence the game at both ends.”

It was a bizarre game in what has been a bizarre season for St. John’s. After scoring a team-high 16 points and knocking down a career-high four 3-pointers against Dartmouth five days ago, Phil Greene went scoreless in 14 minutes against Seton Hall.

Sanchez, Sampson and D'Angelo Harrison scored 16 points apiece Thursday. And Branch had a season-high 11 off the bench, plus three steals.

Five players were in double figures against the Pirates. Nine different players have scored in double figures in at least one game this season. But there’s very little in the way of consistency, other than Harrison, who’s averaging 18.1 points per game.

Defensively, St. John’s held its past three Big East opponents to less than 41 percent shooting, and two of the three to less than 37 percent, yet lost all three times. Seton Hall shot 52.1 percent from the field on Thursday.

“Tonight we were awful defensively, and we won the game,” Lavin said. “A little bit like the season, it’s hard to figure out sometimes. But at the end of it, the most important statistic was us winning.”

Lavin continues to predict big things come February, but St. John’s wraps up January with two challenging road games against Butler (Saturday) and Creighton (Tuesday).

Butler is just 1-6 in the Big East, but three of its six conference losses have gone to overtime. Creighton is 6-1, and just annihilated No. 4-ranked Villanova in Philadelphia, burying 21 3-pointers in a 96-68 victory.

The Red Storm need to at least split the next two in order to carry any sort of momentum into next month. Otherwise, they will be in a very deep hole entering the second half of conference play.

Lavin said he reminded his team Thursday that his first St. John’s squad was 11-8 overall at this juncture, just like them, and went on to the NCAA tournament. But that team was 4-5 in the Big East at that time, with two wins over top-25 opponents.

This St. John’s team is 1-5 in a weaker Big East, with zero wins over top-25 opponents, and a whole lot more to prove.