St. John's nips DePaul, still in NCAA mix

After dunking DePaul, St. John's is in position to push for the NCAA tournament. Anthony Gruppuso/USA TODAY Sports

NEW YORK -- One down, one to go.

St. John’s took care of business Sunday against DePaul, in the first of two must-win games to end the regular season. Even if it wasn't pretty.

Playing without Rysheed Jordan, the Red Storm were still able to build a 20-point second-half lead -- and then nearly blew it. But they managed to pull out a 72-64 victory, keeping their NCAA tournament at-large bid chances alive.

“Considering that we played this game without our starting point guard and one of our key contributors, we’ll take it,” St. John’s coach Steve Lavin said. “At this stage of the year you’re not gonna get too caught up in grading W’s.”

Lavin did grade his team’s 25-point win over Butler here two weeks ago, and gave it a C-minus. This performance deserved worse. St. John’s led 33-21 at the half, and 45-25 with just more than 15 minutes remaining, but then almost let DePaul -- which had lost 10 of 11 -- steal the game.

The Red Storm were unusually sloppy, committing 16 turnovers. And give the Blue Demons credit -- they did not pack it in, despite having little to play for. DePaul, now 11-19 overall and 3-14 in the Big East, will finish either last or second-to-last in the conference.

Brandon Young scored 14 of his team-high 23 points in the second half, and an R.J. Curington 3-pointer with 4:14 left cut St. John’s lead to 57-54. DePaul shot 7-for-11 from beyond the arc in the second half.

“They’re a scrappy bunch,” St. John’s guard D'Angelo Harrison said. “They got after us.”

But that’s as close as things got. Sir'Dominic Pointer swatted away a Curington layup attempt 36 seconds later that would have made it 57-56, Chris Obekpa and Orlando Sanchez had big blocks in the final minutes, as well, and St. John’s made enough free throws down the stretch.

The Red Storm already led the nation in blocked shots per game at 7.6, but had almost twice as many Sunday, with 14. Obekpa led the way with five, and three other players had two apiece.

“They made two, three, maybe even four or five terrific defensive plays there in the second half, to erase some baskets that obviously would have made it a lot closer,” DePaul coach Oliver Purnell said. “Gotta give them credit for making some game-winning defensive plays.”

Harrison bounced back from a 1-for-11 shooting performance in a loss to Xavier on Tuesday, scoring a game-high 25 points, plus 10 rebounds. Pointer chipped in 14 points, Sanchez added 13 and Obekpa had two points and 11 rebounds, in addition to his five blocks.

JaKarr Sampson played just 19 minutes, and scored eight points. “JaKarr didn’t do anything wrong,” Lavin said. “I just couldn’t get him back in because Obekpa was anchoring our defense at the rim and providing the resistance that we needed against that dribble penetration attack of DePaul, and Orlando was in a good place offensively, and also did some nice things defensively.”

Sanchez was one of three St. John’s seniors honored before the game, along with forward God'sgift Achiuwa (three points, two blocks) and swingman Marc-Antonie Bourgault, who entered the game in the final seconds. Sanchez also celebrated the birth of his baby daughter last week, but there’s been a lot of sad news for the St. John’s program in recent days.

Jordan sat out Sunday’s game after attending the funeral of an aunt who died tragically in Philadelphia last weekend. Lavin revealed after the win over DePaul that five loved ones of St. John’s players have passed away since last Saturday.

“The week was disjointed and unusual,” Lavin said, “because of the degree of grieving and healing that was going on while we’re trying to get ready to play high-level games at the most critical part of the season.”

Sanchez lost a mentor, Pointer lost two people close to him, and Jordan lost a second person as well. “That’s really what I talked to the team about after the game,” Lavin said. “How proud I am of the way they’ve encouraged one another, supported one another, provided that fellowship like a family does during difficult times.”

On the basketball side of things, the win over DePaul ups St. John’s to 19-11 overall and 9-8 in the Big East, but it’s not nearly enough to secure an NCAA tournament bid. The Red Storm need to win their regular-season finale in order to finish above .500 in the conference. And they probably need to win a Big East tournament quarterfinal as well, in order to feel comfortable on Selection Sunday.

Harrison said he and his teammates are not caught up in all the NCAA tournament bracket speculation.

“Our team does a good job of locking in and focusing on the task at hand,” Harrison said. “Our job is to win games. We gotta win against Marquette. End of story.”

Beating Buzz Williams’ club on the road is a much tougher task than beating DePaul at home. But Lavin is hopeful St. John’s will have Jordan back, and be back at full strength -- physically and emotionally -- by Saturday.

“To dig ourselves out of that 0-5 hole [in the Big East] and to be 9-8 going into this Marquette game is something that, in my career, is gonna stand out as really special,” Lavin said. “And now we’d like to pay it off by making a run and doing something in March.”

One March win is in the books. But there’s still a lot of work to be done.