St. John's bubble bursts vs. Providence

NEW YORK -- St. John’s may play another game in Madison Square Garden this season.

But it will be in the NIT.

The Red Storm’s NCAA tournament aspirations were all but snuffed out Thursday, courtesy of their 79-74 loss to Providence in the Big East tournament quarterfinals.

In a crucial game against a fellow bubble dweller, St. John’s fell short -- on its home court no less -- in a performance that summed up its 2013-14 season perfectly.

The Red Storm played pretty well early, then fell way behind, and a furious rally was too little, too late.

“Really proud of the way our team fought back, a dramatic comeback and had a chance to take the lead in the waning seconds,” St. John’s coach Steve Lavin said. “Says a lot about their resiliency and fight-back, and we’ve seen that all year, but it was on display once again this afternoon.

“But disappointed with the loss.”

St. John’s had a seven-point lead, 29-22, with less than six minutes remaining in the first half. Freshman Rysheed Jordan was putting on a show, with 14 points. But Providence closed the half on a 14-4 run, taking a 36-33 lead into the locker room.

The Friars took command early in the second half, led by the hot shooting of sophomore Josh Fortune (24 points). Providence led 63-46 with 6:24 remaining and St. John’s was on the ropes, dangerously close to getting blown out of the building.

And then the Red Storm fought back. Generating steam via a full-court press, St. John’s clawed all the way back to 69-68 with 1:15 left, but couldn’t get over the hump.

JaKarr Sampson (15 points) didn’t finish in the paint with 39 seconds to go, which would have put his team in front. D'Angelo Harrison (21 points) had a game-tying 3-point attempt stuffed by Fortune a few seconds later.

“I’m disappointed in myself,” Sampson said. “Foul or no foul, I missed a shot. I felt I should have made it.”

Providence finished it off at the foul line, shooting 10-for-10 in the final minute. St. John’s made just 13 of 26 free throws in the game, and paid for it dearly.

Sampson missed four, Harrison three, and Sir'Dominic Pointer and Orlando Sanchez were both 0-for-2.

“We missed free throws. We missed a couple of shots in that first half. We weren’t playing St. John’s basketball that we usually play,” Harrison said. “But you saw that, I think, the last six, seven minutes. If we did that the whole game, it would have been a different kind of ballgame.

“We just waited too late. We were just flat until the end.”

St. John’s opened this season at 9-3, including two competitive losses against ranked opponents Wisconsin and Syracuse. Then a promising season went off the rails starting in late December, with an 0-5 start in Big East play.

The Red Storm regrouped and won 11 of 14 to finish the regular season, putting themselves back in the NCAA tournament conversation. But needing one more win to stamp their résumé as NCAA-worthy, they played a “C” game, when just a “B” probably would have sufficed.

Starting center Chris Obekpa played just two minutes total after picking up two quick fouls in the first half and a third early in the second half. Lavin said Obekpa’s lack of playing time was “99 percent” foul trouble, plus Lavin liked the group that mounted the late comeback.

Sampson said Providence “had more energy than us, outhustling us.” Pointer mentioned “nerves,” and guard Phil Greene IV said St. John’s was “anxious.”

“First game of the Big East tournament, so everybody was amped, and a little uptight,” Greene said. “I think we did play uptight at the beginning.”

There were clearly a number of issues.

Speaking of grades, Lavin was asked to evaluate his team’s season -- specifically, is it a disappointment or a failure if the Red Storm don't make the NCAA tournament?

“No,” Lavin said. “This group is -- they’ve taken us for a ride that I’ll never forget. To have a team that started the league 0-5 -- one time we were 9-8 overall and 0-5, and now we’re up here finishing the league 10-8 in a three-way tie for third.

“I couldn’t be prouder of probably any group I coached in my career.”

But the goal was the NCAA tournament, which is out of reach now for all intents and purposes. St. John’s will fall short for the third straight year, and lost its Big East tournament opener for the third straight year as well.

“It hurts a lot. Especially with what was at stake,” Green said. “It just hurts.”