NEW YORK – At halftime of the semifinal game in the NIT Season Tip-Off, St. John’s’ prospects were less than favorable. The Red Storm trailed 40-31. It just wasn’t the score but the reasons behind it.
A defense that failed to close out effectively on the Minnesota shooters (6 of 11 for 45 percent from three). An offense that was impatient. The Golden Gopher zone was affording a perimeter shot after one or two passes. The Red Storm took the bait, did not hit a three-point attempt (0-9) and struggled on the offensive end.
The final twenty minutes saw a complete change. The offense began to click. Conversely, the defense picked up, made stops and ultimately changed the course of the game. The Red Storm dominated in the stretch, ultimately earning a 70-61 victory and a place in the tournament title game.
“The first half we played like little kids,” said SirDominic pointer of St. John’s. “The second half we stayed together. We played like men.”
Teammate D’Angelo Harrison would agree with Pointer’s assessment. The Red Storm senior guard gook it a bit further, specifically noting, “the first half we left guys open,” Harrison said. “The second half we battled defensively. We played St. John’s basketball.”
Harrison epitomized St. John’s early offensive struggles. He was two of ten from the field at halftime, yet finished with a team-high 19 points. He canned a three, was fouled and converted to finish a four-point play. That occurred with just under three minutes to play and for all intents, punched the Red Storm’s ticket to the finals. “My teammates were very supportive,” Harrison said. “At the half they came up and said, ’you are a shooter, keep shooting it’.”
The emphasis on team was driven home by St. John’s coach Steve Lavin. “In coaching it can be a cliché talking about a team win, but tonight was a total and complete team victory,” Lavin said. “The players, staff, managers, everyone.”
Lavin was asked about his players commenting the team grew into men tonight. “My guys have that media savvy,” he said laughing. “The second half we showed maturity as a team. We were focused on the task at hand and defense.”
A little over seven months prior, Richard Pitino exited the “World’s Most Famous Arena” with a title in hand as the Golden Gophers won the NIT championship. Following the semifinal contest, the Minnesota mentor could only lament over what transpired over the course of the just completed forty minutes.
“They deserve credit,” Pitino said of the Red Storm. “They out hustled, beat us on the boards and out scrapped us.” Pitino was upset with his team’s 20 turnovers. Those lethal miscues afforded St. John’s a 24-10 edge in points off turnovers. Pitino went as far to remark, “turnovers are plays that hijack your team.”
Pitino’s laundry list included the turnovers, too much fouling (“We fouled, no criticism on officials,” he said) and failure to hit open looks. In the final analysis Pitino knows his opponent that night was largely the reason. “Hey, give them credit,” he said. “They made the hustle plays.”
The final saw St. John’s come up short against Gonzaga. The Red Storm showed that resiliency and toughness in trimming a double-digit second half deficit to a one-possession game in the stretch. St. John’s could not get over the hump and fell 73-66.
Some of the same attributes shown in the Minnesota meeting were evident in the final. That previously mentioned toughness and resolve. On the other side, there’s a perimeter-oriented attack desperately searching for a consistent inside offensive threat. That is something to be addressed when Steve Lavin’s group encounters Big East play.
Overall, it was a surprisingly strong showing in the NIT Season Tip-Off. Many expected them to get eliminated by Minnesota, yet they triumphed and ultimately gave a talented Gonzaga team a run before dropping a close contest.