St. John's breaks through, beats Creighton

NEW YORK -- March Madness is a month away, and St. John’s just might crash the party.

Left for dead after a disastrous 0-5 start in conference play, the Red Storm are suddenly among the hottest teams in the country. And they finally broke through against a Top 25 opponent Sunday, knocking off No. 12 Creighton, 70-65, at Madison Square Garden.

“It feels great, to get it out the way,” said St. John’s swingman Sir’Dominic Pointer. “I think we’re just taking off. I think we’re finding our own little swag, in our groove right now. We’re hard to beat if we play like this.”

St. John’s came up just short against Wisconsin in early November, against Syracuse in mid-December, against Villanova in early January and against this same Creighton club 12 days ago. The Red Storm didn’t let this one slip away, however, instead seizing the victory in the final minutes.

The Red Storm led 40-36 at halftime, but trailed 63-62 with 2:18 remaining after a made free throw by the Bluejays’ Austin Chatman. On the ensuing possession, St. John’s guard D’Angelo Harrison got the ball on the left wing and didn’t waste any time. With his defender giving him some breathing room early in the shot clock, Harrison hoisted a long 3-point attempt -- nothing but net.

Nine seconds after trailing, St. John’s had the lead for good.

“D’Angelo relishes having the ball in his hands in crunch time,” St. John’s coach Steve Lavin said.

The Red Storm dodged a couple bullets in the final two minutes. Both Grant Gibbs and Jahenns Manigat had good looks from beyond the arc that would have put Creighton back in front. But neither shot went down, and Harrison put the game away by making five of six free throws after that.

Creighton, on the other hand, made just 14 of its 25 free throws in the game (56 percent). And the Bluejays, who led the nation in 3-point shooting coming in (42.5 percent), made just five of 22 attempts (22.7 percent) Sunday night.

“Obviously some of that credit goes to St. John’s,” said Creighton coach Greg McDermott. “Their length certainly impacts your ability to shoot the basketball and get clean looks at the basket.”

But the biggest stat of them all involved McDermott’s son, Doug, the second-leading scorer in the country (25.3 PPG) and leading candidate for national player of the year. Doug poured in a season-high 39 points against St. John’s two weeks ago in Omaha, including the game-winning 3-pointer in the final seconds.

Doug reached his season average Sunday (25 points), but he had to work very hard to do so. And he scored his last points with nearly nine minutes remaining in the game. In fact, he did not take a shot in the final eight minutes and 41 seconds of play -- thanks in large part to the smothering defense of Jakarr Sampson, who played in front of him and had a hand in seemingly every passing lane.

“They did a great job of taking me away,” Doug said. “I thought they did a great job of switching whenever I came off screens, they were really disciplined a lot more down the stretch there, so you gotta give them a lot of credit.”

Harrison (19 points) was the star on offense, and Sampson on defense -- but make no mistake, this was a total team effort, at both ends of the floor. Eight St. John’s players got 10 or more minutes, and all eight scored.

Chris Obekpa didn’t have a blocked shot, but he did have 11 points and six rebounds, his fourth strong game in a row. Pointer and Phil Greene IV each chipped in nine points, Sampson scored eight and Jamal Branch had seven. Rysheed Jordan only scored five, but had a team-high seven assists.

It marked Lavin’s 200th career win as a head coach, but Lavin was much more interested in talking about his players after the game.

“It’s significant because this particular group has worked so hard from the halftime of that Georgetown game [on Jan. 4] forward,” Lavin said. “I’m as proud of this group as any I’ve coached in terms of ... resiliency, gumption, fight back, character.

“There’s a gravitas to this group -- it’s like a developing gravitas. It wasn’t there earlier in the year, but as we get deeper into the season I think we’ve found ourself though struggle, adversity, hardship. And as a result, like a muscle, it’s getting stronger with each game. And that part reminds me a lot of my first year here.”

Lavin’s first team at St. John’s, back in 2010-11, had beaten a ranked team by early January, and didn’t dig itself nearly as big a hole in the Big East. But it went 7-0 in conference play in February en route to an at-large NCAA tournament bid.

This St. John’s team is 3-0 in February, with five more games to play this month and five more weeks before Selection Sunday.

There’s still a lot of work to be done. But all of a sudden, the possibilities seem endless.

“I feel like we can beat anybody we play right now, the way we’re playing,” Sampson said.

And he just might be right.