(Neil Miller/Sportsday Wire)
In a setting famous for its heart attack-esque finishes, Rutgers and their fans bore witness to a few coronaries of their own down the stretch.
Leading by 16 points just five minutes into the second half, the Scarlet Knights (2-1) were seemingly in the clear, feeding off the hot shooting of Bishop Daniels and Mike Williams. But the visitors, as they have been prone to do in the past, collapsed down the stretch, allowing St. John’s to fight their way back into the game and eventually regain the lead, falling to the Red Storm (3-0) by the final of 61-59 before a crowd of 4,540 that braved the elements to turn Carnesecca Arena into the raucous bandbox it was on this Thursday evening.
“They did a good job,” a crestfallen Eddie Jordan surmised as St. John’s closed the game on a 32-14 run keyed by Felix Balamou, who nearly posted a triple-double in his season debut, recording an impressive 8-point, 11-rebound, 7-assist effort. “They had a lot more sustainability than we did. We didn’t help ourselves.”
Daniels, who led all scorers with 21 points on 10-of-17 shooting, was the focal point for the Rutgers offense in the first half, proving unguardable as he posted 14 of those 21 in the opening stanza, allowing Rutgers to take a 33-26 cushion into the locker room. Even though St. John’s adjusted on him and held him to just seven points for the remainder of the night, his coach was still pleased with the effort of the senior guard in a sixth man capacity.
“He’s in attack mode,” Jordan said of Sanders. “He took that role and did a good job with it.”
The last laugh, however, belonged to the Red Storm. Trailing 45-29 with 14:52 to play in regulation, the young Johnnies could have easily folded similar to their performance against Division II St. Thomas Aquinas, a 32-point exhibition loss. Head coach Chris Mullin had other thoughts instead.
“We’ve been having a daily approach,” the former St. John’s legend and Basketball Hall of Famer offered with regard to how the team has prepared and how far they have come since that humbling defeat on November 4. “That’s not a slogan, it’s something we’ve been doing. It’s wonderful that we won, but it’s more taking that mental approach and actually acting on it.”
Three players ended the night in double figures for the Red Storm, led by Yankuba Sima and Federico Mussini, each of whom posted 13 points. Sima complemented his total with nine rebounds and six blocked shots, while Mussini added seven rebounds as the St. John’s student section waved a pair of Italian flags after the freshman knocked down three three-pointers over the course of the game. In addition, Ron Mvouika posted a double-double, tallying 12 points and 10 rebounds.
In addition to being hurt by their inability to capitalize on their large lead, Rutgers was also snakebitten by a 5-for-14 performance at the free throw line, where St. John’s also left points on the table, going 13-for-24 in their own right.
“We had a game plan,” Jordan admitted, “and I thought we carried out our game plan for the most part. The issue was we couldn’t make free throws. We did enough to get to the line, we just didn’t convert.”
Despite the maladies at the charity stripe, Rutgers still had two chances to win even after two Mvouika free throws put St. John’s ahead, 60-59, for the first time since the 13:19 mark of the first half, when they had a 9-7 advantage. Point guard Corey Sanders was tripped at the midcourt stripe, but a foul was not called, forcing the freshman to hustle back down the floor to foul Christian Jones in the final seconds. The redshirt junior forward made only one of two shots, leaving the door open one final time.
Needing to travel the length of the floor with no timeouts, Sanders charged up the right baseline, but appeared to take too long on his entry into the lane. To his credit, he found Daniels open at the top of the key for a three-pointer that his teammate hit, but after the final buzzer had sounded and the light on the backboard had gone off.
“If he had a clear lane and a straight line,” Jordan assessed on the final possession, “he could have got something done.”
“They just outhearted us,” he elaborated. “They just had more grit, more determination, more will. They did a good job, they did what they had to do, but we helped them. We shot ourselves in the foot.”