After an up-and-down regular season, St. John’s desperately needed at least one win in the Big East tournament to truly earn NCAA tournament consideration.
Unfortunately for the Red Storm, their dancing shoes will collect another year’s worth of dust.
In a must-win game for both teams, inconsistent defense paired with a missed go-ahead layup attempt by St. John’s forward JaKarr Sampson in the final seconds allowed Providence to repel a massive Red Storm comeback, topping the Johnnies 79-74 in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden last Thursday.
The loss sealed the Red Storm’s disappointing fate, as St. John’s was not selected to participate in the NCAA tournament for the third straight season.
Providence went on to win the Big East tournament by defeating Seton Hall and Creighton on Friday and Saturday respectively, earning a berth in the big dance.
Instead of playing for the chance at a championship, the Red Storm were selected as one of the top seeds in the NIT, the tournament reserved for the 32 best teams that did not qualify for the NCAAs.
“I thought we played well in stretches, but then we had periods where we didn’t play with a necessary level of aggressiveness,” St. John’s coach Steve Lavin said after the game. “We’re disappointed with the loss.”
Right from the game’s opening minutes, St. John’s found themselves behind the eight ball. Red Storm center Chris Obekpa, a defensive stalwart known for his elite shot-blocking ability, picked up two quick fouls within the first 90 seconds of the contest.
Lavin sat Obekpa on the bench for the remainder of the first half to avoid his center from getting closer to the five-foul limit.
With Obekpa firmly entrenched on the pine, Providence dominated the Red Storm in the paint. Friars forward Kadeem Batts scored nine points and grabbed eight rebounds in the first half alone.
Tyler Harris snared seven rebounds of his own in the frame, as the duo gave fits to Sampson and other St. John’s defenders such as God’sgift Achiuwa and Orlando Sanchez, who all seemed to be completely overmatched.
“It was 99 percent because of foul trouble,” Lavin said of Obekpa’s mere two minutes of game action Thursday. “That foul trouble naturally put him at a disadvantage because we prefer to have him at the rim like a soccer or hockey goalie.”
Despite St. John’s guards holding Providence star Bryce Cotton to one point and no field goals in the first half, the Friars, led by the consistent play of their forwards, maintained a 36-33 lead going into the break.
The beginning of the second half was an even bigger disaster for the Red Storm.
Providence opened the frame on a 14-4 run, during which Obekpa picked up his third foul and St. John’s suddenly proved unable to stop Providence guard Josh Fortune, who scored eight straight points before a Red Storm timeout.
The Friars opened up a 17-point lead with six minutes remaining in the contest, but St. John’s leading scorer D’Angelo Harrison didn’t want his team’s tournament hopes to die on their home court.
After a quiet six-point first half, Harrison scored seven points during a two-minute stretch in the game’s waning moments, as St. John’s cut Providence’s lead to just one point entering the final minute.
With a sizable crowd on its feet and the Red Storm faithful in attendance getting loud for the first time, Sampson missed a contested layup that would have given the Red Storm a 70-69 lead with just seconds remaining, earning a collective groan from the crowd.
“I feel like normally I would make it and I’m disappointed in myself,” Sampson said. “I felt like I should have made it.”
The Red Storm never threatened to take the lead after Sampson’s miss, as Providence was able to pull away in the final seconds.
“We missed free throws. We missed a couple shots in that first half,” Harrison added. “We weren’t playing St. John’s basketball that we usually play.”
Cotton finished with 12 points but it was the sharpshooting of Fortune, who scored 24 points, and the interior presence of LaDonatae Henton, who scored 16 points of his own, that proved just too much for the Johnnies to overcome.
Harrison finished with a team-high 21 points while Sampson and freshman Rysheed Jordan finished with 15 and 17 points, respectfully.
Despite the heartbreaking loss, Lavin was quick to say in the postgame press conference that the year was far from a disappointment.
“This team has taken me on a ride I’ll never forget,” he said. “They’ve made fans of a lot of people. They’re just a first-class group.”