They are no longer Big East Conference adversaries after Syracuse’s defection to the Atlantic Coast Conference prior to this season. But on Sunday, they rekindled one of college basketball’s best and fiercest rivalries in a game for the ages at Madison Square Garden.
The second-ranked Syracuse Orange, whom many experts view as a sure-fire NCAA championship contender, advertise themselves as “New York’s college team,” but the Red Storm players and fans alike made it known that the Johnnies are still the Big Apple’s premier college hoops squad even in defeat.
In a pulse-racing contest filled with clutch shots and a raucous crowd, the Orange thwarted the Red Storm’s attempt at a stunning upset and sent the Johnnies back to Queens with a 68-63 defeat on Sunday.
St. John’s now falls to 6-3 while Syracuse remains undefeated at 10-0.
Donning either Syracuse orange and St. John’s red, the crowd of 16,357 at the Garden cheered on a back-and-forth duel featuring All-American talent in Orange freshman point guard Tyler Ennis and star potential in Red Storm rookie Rysheed Jordan.
Ennis, regarded as one of the best players in all of college basketball, dominated the game at times. His unmatched speed and athleticism allowed him to weave through the normally tough St. John’s defense under the basket and score 21 points, despite shooting just 42 percent from the field.
His ability to draw fouls on drives to the hoop was on display as well, as the Canadian product nailed all 10 of his free-throw attempts.
But the Red Storm’s stellar freshman was able to keep up for the most part. Jordan scored a career-high 13 points of his own, two of which came on an impressive, acrobatic layup in between Orange defenders.
While the freshmen shined bright in the spotlight, it was the play of each team’s veterans that made the difference late in the game. Unfortunately for the Red Storm, it was Syracuse star C.J. Fair who seemingly hit every big shot on his way to 21 points of his own while St. John’s sophomore JaKarr Sampson missed key free throws down the stretch.
The Red Storm found themselves down 39-27 at halftime and it appeared that the Johnnies didn’t have enough firepower to bust the famous Syracuse zone defense. But the Johnnies stormed back on the strength of leading scorer D’Angelo Harrison’s 14 second-half points.
The foes traded baskets and St. John’s even took a 60-58 lead with five minutes remaining in the contest, but much like previous years, the game got away from the Johnnies at the free-throw line.
With three minutes remaining and the Red Storm down 62-60 to the Orange, Sampson missed two key free throws. Fair took advantage of the Red Storm’s missed chance to tie the game by burying two baseline jump shots on back-to-back possessions, giving the Orange a lead they would never relinquish.
“That’s going to kill me,” Sampson told the media after the game. “Me missing two big free throws; I feel like that was a big part of the game. I feel like it turned the momentum.”
“It hurts to lose but it hurts to lose to Syracuse in particular,” Harrison added. “When we play Syracuse, it’s 16,000 fans. It’s a great rivalry and that’s why we play them every year. We just need to get over that hump, maybe next year.”
With his single three-pointer against Syracuse, Harrison is three such shots away from breaking Willie Shaw’s record for the most threes in school history. Unfortunately for Harrison and the Johnnies, Harrison’s three was the only one the Red Storm hit against Syracuse in 15 attempts.
On Wednesday night, the Johnnies were set to return to Queens and take on San Francisco, the alma matter of coach Steve Lavin’s late father Cap, who was a star for the Dons in the 1950s. St. John’s will then welcome Youngstown State to Queens on Saturday at 2 p.m.