It may be too little, too late for the Red Storm to find themselves in the field of 68 NCAA Tournament teams come March, but they aren’t going down without a fight.
In typical St. John’s fashion, the Red Storm took down one of the best teams in college basketball on Sunday at Madison Square Garden, defeating the 12th-ranked Creighton Bluejays 70-65, pushing the Johnnies’ record to 15-9 and 5-6 in Big East conference play.
It seems like the Johnnies defeat a top ranked team at least once every season despite being underdogs, and the Red Storm couldn’t have picked a better time to pull the annual upset.
With seven games left on the schedule, including four at home and two within two hours of New York City, the Red Storm need to come away with at least five wins to find themselves on the tournament bubble.
Twenty wins is known as the unofficial benchmark for being considered a strong contender for the NCAA Tournament, and anything less than five victories will most likely leave the Johnnies on the outside looking in.
On Sunday, the Red Storm certainly looked like a team that belonged in the tournament, a miraculous turnaround from their January struggles in which they dropped five straight contests.
Creighton’s Doug McDermott is, without question, the best player in the Big East and is arguably the best player in college basketball. He torched St. John’s on his way to 39 points two weeks ago. He leads the conference in scoring. Despite McDermott’s freakish ability to move without the ball, get open and score, the Red Storm were able to hold him scoreless for the final eight crucial minutes of the contest.
The Johnnies switched on screens and pressured him so much that McDermott wasn’t even able to attempt a shot during those final minutes.
After the Creighton star made a layup for his 24th and 25th points with 8:40 to go to give the Bluejays a 59-57 lead, the Red Storm’s offense kicked into a fifth gear.
Junior guard D’Angelo Harrison, the Johnnies’ best offensive weapon, scored 10 points in the final eight minutes, with two of his baskets either tying the game or giving the Red Storm the lead.
His three-pointer with two minutes left gave St. John’s a 65-63 advantage they would never relinquish.
Harrison, who sits third in the Big East in scoring with 18 points-per-game, finished with 19 points while center Chris Obekpa finished with 11 points and six rebounds.
Rysheed Jordan, who was named the Big East Rookie of the Week after scoring 18 points against Providence on Feb. 4, finished with five points, five rebounds and seven assists.
But it was the defensive prowess of the Johnnies that fueled the upset of Creighton, at least Doug McDermott thought so.
“They did a great job of taking me away,” McDermott said. “They were really disciplined a lot more down the stretch, so you’ve got to give them credit.”
Red Storm coach Steve Lavin, who two months ago was the subject of whispers regarding a potential coaching change in the near future, has firmly reattached himself to his position as coach for right now. If he leads the Johnnies to an NCAA Tournament berth that many experts before the season believed would feature the Red Storm, his job is more than safe.
“I think this group is developing at a nice rate,” Lavin said. “The hardship we faced earlier in the season seems to have forged a certain strength. We haven’t achieved anything of significance, but tonight’s win is another hurdle that has been cleared and an indication that this team is improving.”
The Red Storm were set to cross the Hudson River to visit Seton Hall on Thursday, followed up with duels against Georgetown and Butler at Madison Square Garden on Sunday and Tuesday respectively.
The Johnnies’ struggles began in earnest during their loss to Georgetown on Jan. 4, as St. John’s found themselves down by more than 30 in the second half of that game. If the Red Storm can upset Georgetown, Queens has a real shot of being represented in the NCAA Tournament this year.