Red Storm march closer to Madness at MSG

Jakarr Sampson, who took charge Tuesday at the Garden, finished with a career-high 23 points. Anthony Gruppuso/USA TODAY Sports

NEW YORK -- St. John’s played only 20 good minutes Tuesday, yet won by 25 points.

My, how things have changed in a few short weeks.

The Red Storm blew away Butler in the second half at Madison Square Garden, turning a 33-30 halftime deficit into a 77-52 victory. But St. John’s coach Steve Lavin was in no mood to celebrate after the game.

“We were not pleased,” Lavin said. “If I was gonna grade it, I’d say it was a C-minus.”

Lavin was talking about the entire game -- not the first half, which he labeled “a straight F.” Admittedly, it wasn’t pretty. The Red Storm shot just 11-for-30 from the field (36.7 percent), and allowed Butler forward Khyle Marshall to dominate at both ends. Marshall had 16 points and seven rebounds before intermission.

“We lacked a sense of urgency, and we didn’t play with the pace or the sharpness that we prefer to,” Lavin said.

There was no screaming in the locker room at halftime, though; no broken chalkboards or flying objects. Lavin described what transpired as “a conversation” about how far the Red Storm have come, after starting conference play at 0-5.

“The reason we got to this point was because of our hard work and our cohesive approach and playing the game the right way,” Lavin said, “and do we want to throw away the opportunity to do something special this year?”

“We worked too hard to get ourselves to this position right now,” forward JaKarr Sampson said. “That’s why we came out more aggressive [in the second half] and with more energy than we did the first half.”

Sampson led the charge, scoring 14 of his career-high 23 points in the second half. The sophomore made 11 of his 15 shots from the field, with an array of short jumpers and smooth finishes at the rim.

Nine different St. John’s players scored. Jamal Branch, after sitting out two games due to oral surgery, was the only other player in double figures, with 10 points and a team-high five assists.

The Red Storm opened the second half on a 14-2 spurt, and then put the game away by scoring 20 points in a row, turning a 50-43 contest into a 70-43 snooze-fest.

Butler coach Brandon Miller was impressed -- even more impressed than he was after St. John’s beat his Bulldogs by 17 in Indianapolis on Jan. 25.

“They were pretty good against us the first game. But in watching them play and watching on film and preparing for them, they look different,” Miller said. “On offense right now they’re clicking. They have multiple guys making shots, and when you have guys making shots they can spread the floor and open up the floor on the offensive end.”

That’s the most exciting thing about this St. John’s team right now. Two days ago, D'Angelo Harrison and Rysheed Jordan poured in 24 points apiece in a 22-point win over Georgetown. Forty-eight hours later, Harrison and Jordan were the supporting cast (seven points apiece), while Sampson and Branch played the starring roles in another rout.

Orlando Sanchez, Sir'Dominic Pointer and Phil Greene IV are capable of filling it up as well. And as long as injured center Chris Obekpa makes it back by March, St. John’s has one of the most dynamic defensive players in college basketball, too.

The Red Storm -- now 18-9 overall and 8-6 in the Big East -- have won six games in a row, and nine of their past 10. An NCAA tournament at-large bid, which seemed a ludicrous goal in mid-January, now suddenly looks well within reach.

“On a night where we didn’t play well, we win by 25 points -- that’s a good indication that we have made progress from where we were a month ago,” Lavin said.

It may have been a C-minus. More importantly, it's another step toward March Madness.