Entering conference play with confidence is key for an upstart team like the Red Storm, and a victory over Columbia on Saturday would cement the Johnnies as a Big East team to watch entering the winter.
The Red Storm knew and accomplished just that.
In a Saturday tilt at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, junior guard D’Angelo Harrison scored 15 points to lead the Red Storm to a 65-59 win over Columbia, giving the Johnnies a 9-3 record. They were due to enter Big East conference play with a game on the road against Xavier on Dec. 31.
The Johnnies led 37-30 at halftime and were up 48-34 with 14 minutes left, but the underrated Columbia team, who nearly upset the powerhouse Michigan State Spartans in November, stormed back.
Led by guard Grant Mullins, who scored a game-high 17 points, the Lions went on a remarkable 17-2 run and held St. John’s scoreless for five straight minutes. With just seven minutes remaining, Columbia maintained a 51-50 lead over the Red Storm.
St. John’s followed with a 9-0 run of its own and forward Sir’Dominic Pointer sealed the game with a layup and a free throw in the contest’s final minute.
“We knew Columbia was a great team. They were up two against Michigan State with just a couple minutes to play,” Harrison said after the game. “We knew they were going to make a run and we cut it off and pulled out the victory.”
The nonconference portion of the Red Storm’s schedule is now over, with the exception of one game against Dartmouth on Jan. 18, and it can’t be qualified as anything less than a success.
The Johnnies were able to withstand missing star freshman Rysheed Jordan for multiple games due to suspension and family matters. Shot-blocking sensation Chris Obekpa was suspended for the Red Storm’s two exhibition games but his issues seem to be a thing of the past. And D’Angelo Harrison appears to be the changed man he claimed to be in October, with his attitude problem in the rearview mirror.
Harrison leads the Johnnies in scoring with 19.5 points per game, good for 45th in all of Division 1 college basketball. He is also shooting a solid 35 percent from three-point range, second among St. John’s starters behind fellow guard Phil Greene.
When it comes to the Red Storm’s play on the court, there were some stumbles and growing pains as seen in a loss to Penn State and the multiple games where the Johnnies found themselves down double digits to teams they shouldn’t necessarily fall behind big against.
However, the Johnnies’ offensive attack is much improved from the past two seasons, as Harrison has turned into an ever-reliable scorer and sophomore JaKarr Sampson has consistently provided stability with big shots and key rebounds. The near upset of Syracuse, the number two team in the country, and the opening night contest with fourth-ranked Wisconsin proves that the Red Storm can hang with the big boys and even beat them with just a modest improvement in free-throw shooting and defense.
The Big East has some new faces starting this season, as Creighton, Butler and Xavier joined the conference while Rutgers, Louisville and Connecticut have since departed. So the Red Storm will see a few teams these current players have not faced, but after the Johnnies’ encouraging play these last two months, excitement should be the predominant feeling among St. John’s fans.
If the Red Storm want to snag an NCAA Tournament berth and get back to being known as “The Beast of the East” as they were in the 1980s, every game from now until March Madness means much more.
“I love our team,” coach Steve Lavin said. “As I’ve said consistently, by February we will hit our stride. We believe we can surprise some folks along the way, but by the second half of league play, we have the potential to develop into a dangerous team.”
For the Johnnies, the road to the tournament starts now.