NEW YORK -- St. John’s picked the wrong time to play its worst game in nearly two months.
The Red Storm were facing a Xavier team that sits alongside them on the NCAA tournament bubble, and had already beaten them once. Now the Musketeers have a season sweep and a clear edge come Selection Sunday, courtesy of a 65-53 victory at Madison Square Garden.
“We were disappointed with the lack of resistance on the defensive end of the floor, in the paint and at the rim,” St. John’s coach Steve Lavin said. “Offensively, we struggled to find a rhythm.”
Lavin had his full complement of players Tuesday. Forward Orlando Sanchez returned after missing one game due to the birth of his daughter. Center Chris Obekpa gutted through his second consecutive game on a sore right ankle.
Guard Rysheed Jordan showed even more guts, playing three days after a close relative died tragically in his hometown of Philadelphia.
But the Red Storm looked nothing like the team that won six games in a row to begin the month of February, before a highly competitive three-point loss at No. 8 Villanova on Saturday.
St. John’s trailed by just one at intermission, 31-30, but that was a mirage. Xavier shot 56 percent in the first half (14-for-25), and took control of the game with a 10-1 run midway through the second half.
Reserve forward Jalen Reynolds' three-point play with 7:18 remaining pushed the Musketeers’ lead to double digits for the first time, 49-39. The Red Storm never got closer than four points the rest of the way.
Reynolds dominated the game, with 17 points and 16 rebounds -- both career highs. St. John’s shot just 36.7 percent from the field (22-for-60), 12.5 percent from beyond the arc (2-for-16) and 53.8 percent from the foul line (7-for-13). And the Red Storm -- a team that thrives on transition -- had zero fast-break points in 40 minutes, which is simply stunning.
“We’re a gap-oriented team,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said. “We don’t want to be out in passing lanes denying, we want to have defenders in gap situations where it’s tough to go one-on-one.
“We have big challenges on the floor when you play these guys, whether it’s [D'Angelo] Harrison, whether it’s Rysheed Jordan, who’s played great as of late. We really wanted to make sure that it was tough contested [2-pointers] and we didn’t get spread out defensively.”
Harrison, the third-leading scorer in the Big East entering the game (17.8 PPG), equaled a season low with just four points, shooting 1-for-11 from the field. It was only his fourth game of the season in single digits.
JaKarr Sampson finished with a team-high 14 points, shooting 7-for-17 from the floor. Jordan and Sanchez added 11 points apiece.
Harrison wasn’t made available to the media after the game. But Phil Greene (five points) was, and hinted that the off-the-court issues may have caught up with the Red Storm.
“A lot has been going on this week with our team, with Orlando and the baby, and Rysheed and his family,” Greene said. “It’s just a lot, but there’s no excuse.”
“It was the most unusual week of my coaching career,” Lavin said. “But at the end of it, that shouldn’t affect our post defense.”
St. John’s now faces the very real possibility of winding up in the NIT, which would be a huge disappointment. The Red Storm were one of the Last Four In according to Monday’s edition of Bracketology, and will surely slide down to the First Four Out now, and maybe even lower than that.
A win over woeful DePaul on Sunday won’t help St. John’s stock any. The Red Storm (18-11, 8-8 Big East) will need to win at Marquette in the regular-season finale -- no easy task -- and then win at least a game in the Big East tournament, maybe two.
As remarkable as their run from mid-January to late February was, that 0-5 start in conference play may come back to bite them.
“We have a lot of basketball left,” Greene said. “We’re gonna be prepared and ready, so we can make the NCAA tournament.”
But they weren’t ready Tuesday night, and may miss the Madness as a result.