Once again the Johnnies had a chance to knock off a top Big East foe, and once again they came up slightly short.
Though St. John’s seemed to truly appear with fire-and-brimstone determination in the final 10 minutes of the game, the Red Storm dropped an 82-77 decision to No. 24/22 Xavier at Madison Square Garden on Sunday.
Chris Mullin’s boys erased a 15-point deficit down to two in the final quarter of the game, igniting the lazy Sunday Garden crown from its seats.
“We were searching all night for some type of rhythm,” the Red Storm Head Coach said. “We started getting downhill a little bit, getting to the paint and were in the bonus. Our activity picked up and they didn’t maintain their offensive flow.”
A slow, choppy, and foul-laden game, one that felt like referee whistle practice, added up to see 56 fouls and 66 foul shots. The first half, especially, crawled as both team managed just 57 points. The Musketeers held a 32-25 lead over the first 20 minutes, shooting 46 percent. Despite the fact that the Johnnies shot 33 percent in the frame, Mullin felt confident.
“Giving up 32 points to a team like that, I thought the effort was really good,” he said. “You have to separate effort from execution. Defensively, we were really good and we weren’t making shots…”
But the Muskies opened up a 15-point lead with 9:50 left in the second half, seemingly hitting the gas petal for the final burst to a victory. But the youthful and exuberant Johnnies fought back to quell the advance.
“[Xavier is] one of the top 25 teams in the country and they had us down by 15,” Mullin said. “That is something that can balloon to 25, but we came back to get within three. That is progress.”
The missing piece came at the free throw line. St. John’s missed several freebie opportunities to maintain the chase and even take the lead. The feeling that emitted from the charity stripe, at least for a few of the members of the team, was one of nervous energy.
Redshirt freshman guard Marcus LoVett, at the line down by three points, showed a bit of that young nervousness when he missed his first free throw. He smiled after the ball ricocheted in and out of the cylinder. The smile was a friendly reminder, and a sobering reminder, that end-of-game free throws are big.
But St. John’s hasn’t had too many chances or too many opportunities to perfect those late-game situations. Guards Malik Ellison and Shamorie Ponds also saw several charity-stripe chucks bounce awry. In a season like this, with players as young as this, it’s easy for an underclassman to turn to a seasoned veteran and build the confidence to make a shot.
St. John’s doesn’t have any of those at this point. Xavier does.
Musketeers guard Quentin Goodin, a freshman playing key minutes in the final moments due to a severe injury to Xavier stud Edmond Sumner, hit those shots. Goodin nailed seven of his nine free throws on the road at the World’s Most Famous Arena. Goodin had studs to turn to. Xavier plays juniors J.P. Macura and Trevon Bluiett and seniors Malcolm Bernard and RaShid Gaston.
It’s a tune heard many-a-times for the Johnnies. But experience doesn’t just show up. It builds.
“I believe in my team,” LoVett said. “That was a winnable game.”