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St. John’s has the momentum to make a run in February

February 5, 2014 Columns, Your Phil of Hoops No Comments

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Times are good for St. John’s right now. You could see it after their 86-76 win at Providence, when JaKarr Sampson and D’Angelo Harrison got to the interview room before head coach Steve Lavin and sports information director Mark Fratto and proceeded to do their best impression of Fratto introducing the press conference. The youthful exuberance got a few laughs out of those who had gathered.

When you’ve won five of six and look like you’re starting to figure it out, you feel free to do something like this. It’s happening a little later than they surely would have liked, but it may not be too late.

“Gradually, this team is moving in the right direction, and beginning to pick up steam with each practice and each game opportunity,” said Lavin.

After starting Big East play with five straight losses, St. John’s has now won five of their last six after an 86-76 win at Providence on Tuesday night. The game itself was a tale of two halves, and the Red Storm was certainly tested in the second half after they built a seemingly comfortable 67-44 lead a little over five minutes into the second half. As Providence rallied with the home crowd behind them, the Red Storm faced as big a test of the season as anything, as allowing Providence to complete the rally could have been devastating to a team that finally had some momentum.

“I feel like last year, we would have kept bleeding and they would have taken the lead,” said Sampson, who scored 21 points on 10-15 shooting and grabbed seven rebounds.

St. John’s came in fresh off arguably their best performance of the season in their last game, a 74-59 win over Marquette. It looked like there was a carryover in the first half, where they turned the ball over once and shot 61.1 percent from the field thanks to getting easy scoring chances (they had a 32-12 edge in points in the paint) en route to tying their season high of 53 points in a half. They finished the game with just five turnovers while forcing 15.

The confidence is at a high point, as this team has gotten a good feel for each other. The Red Storm doesn’t have the most experienced team around, but they aren’t a bunch of freshmen and there’s plenty of talent to win with. Next year might be “the year” for the current core, as they have three seniors with just one being a significant contributor, but this team has plenty of parts to be better than what they have been thus far. They have a scorer in Harrison, though he does so in volume as he shoots a low percentage, along with a rim protector in Chris Obekpa, a constantly improving athletic wing in Sampson and good playmakers in freshman Rysheed Jordan and junior Phil Greene IV.

Jordan has been a key of late and might be the biggest reason they have won five out of six. While this team has played together for a while now and seems to have a good feel for each other, Jordan is the floor leader who can bring it all together. He had a career-high 18 points on Tuesday night to go along with six assists and two turnovers, and is averaging 10.3 points per game in that stretch. In the last two games, he has 13 assists and five turnovers.

“He’s just getting better every game,” said Harrison. “He got off to a slow start, I told him it’s like that when you’re a freshman, you’ve just got to learn the game. The game is slowing down for him. He’s making all the right decisions, he’s a really good player, and that’s another reason why I feel we’re doing so good, because he’s stepping up as a leader.”

It tells you something that the Red Storm built up a 23-point lead with Harrison going 4-12 for 12 points through the first 25-plus minutes of the game. Harrison would eventually lead the way with 22 points, but eight came in the final two minutes when he went 8-8 from the foul line as Providence fouled to try to extend the game. He also had to play with foul trouble at times, but managed to stay in the game to be effective.

St. John’s has a chance to finish strong and get good momentum going into the Big East Tournament. They play five of their final eight games at home, where they have only lost to Syracuse and Villanova this season. They may have had a late start in playing like they are capable of, but it’s happening now and there is plenty of basketball ahead of them. That means there may also be more opportunities to have some light-hearted fun at the expense of some of the staff.

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