Pointer propels St. John's over Rutgers

PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- On the coldest night of the season, St. John's continued to heat up.

With the temperature in the low teens outside the Rutgers Athletic Center, the Red Storm won their third straight game on Wednesday, defeating the Scarlet Knights 72-60.

With two games remaining before the calendar flips to February, St. John’s (12-7) is suddenly 4-3 in the Big East -- tied for fourth, with Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.

St. John's coach Steve Lavin got typical contributions from his top two scorers -- 21 points from Jakarr Sampson, and 20 from D’Angelo Harrison. But the difference in this game was defense, and Sir’Dominic Pointer.

St. John's held Rutgers -- shooting 46.5 percent as a team, ranked 43rd in the country -- to 36.5 percent (23-for-63) from the floor. And Pointer simply did it all, finishing with 13 points, 9 rebounds, 7 assists and 6 steals.

"Dom Pointer's line tonight is one of the more unusual, exceptional lines of any player I've coached in my career," Lavin said.

St. John's actually trailed for most of the first half, taking its first lead, 29-28, with 1:04 left before intermission. That was the halftime score.

The second half went very differently. The Red Storm scored the first nine points, holding the Scarlet Knights scoreless for nearly five and a half minutes, and had control of the game from there.

St. John's shot 59.1 percent from the field after intermission (13-for-22), while Rutgers shot just 33.3 percent (11-for-33). The Scarlet Knights' leading scorer, Eli Carter, had a nightmarish game, shooting 1-for-14 and finishing with just five points. And Rutgers committed 17 turnovers.

"They wanted it more," Rutgers coach Mike Rice said, "and that usually wins Big East basketball games."

No one wanted it more than Pointer, who appeared to be in the middle of every key sequence. Not only did he flirt with a quadruple-double, but he also took three charges on defense, and blocked two shots.

"His energy was infectious to that team," Rice said. "He's done such a tremendous job of just making winning plays. And that's such a big part of the game that we have to embrace and do a better job at."

Pointer is the rare player who can exert great influence on a game without scoring. And of the four returnees from last season on this St. John's team, Pointer averaged the fewest points a season ago (6.5). But after a slow start, he appears to be blossoming before our eyes.

"Just maturing as a basketball player," Pointer said. "I've been working on my game with the coaches, they've been telling me that they need me down the stretch."

"He's the Tasmanian Devil, he's the straw that stirs the drink," Lavin said. "And he's been the difference here in the last couple of weeks for St. John's."

Exactly two weeks ago, St. John's suffered a heartbreaking 58-56 defeat to this same Rutgers team at Madison Square Garden. The Red Storm followed that up with their worst performance of the season, a blowout loss to Georgetown, and were off to a 1-3 start in conference play.

Eleven days later, St. John's stands 4-3, a half-game behind No. 5-ranked Louisville for third place in the Big East standings.

A tough stretch in early February looms. But first St. John's gets Seton Hall and DePaul at home to wrap up this month -- a golden opportunity to improve to 6-3 midway through the conference season.

"It's a team that's growing, and we're seeing the development right before our eyes," Lavin said. "A little similar to my first team [two years ago], but these kids are younger, so it makes it more impressive -- there's more dramatic kind of quantum leaps in their development."

"We're a young team, but each and every game I see us growing up. I see leaders stepping up," Pointer said. "The stretch is coming. We've got games coming up that we can win. Just take 'em one at a time, and keep winning."