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, it looks like their dancing shoes will collect another year’s worth of dust.
In a must-win game for both teams, an inconsistent defensive effort 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 on Thursday.
With the loss, the chances of St. John’s earning a spot in the 68-team postseason dance have all but vanished, while Providence moves on to the Big East tournament semifinals on Friday, when they will battle Seton Hall.
“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 loss. “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 him 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 bench, 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 his at a disadvantage because we prefer to have him at the rim like a soccer or hockey goalie, and it gives our players up top the confidence to be aggressive with ball pressure.”
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.
“I was proud of our collective team’s effort against Cotton to hold him to one point in the first half,” Lavin said. “That was a testimony to our kids’ grit.”
The beginning of the second half was even more of a 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 guard 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. We weren’t playing St. John’s basketball that we usually play,” Harrison said. “But you saw the last six or seven minutes. If we did that the whole game, it would have been a different kind of ballgame. We just waited too late.”
Cotton finished with 12 points and hit just one shot from the field, 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.
The fate of the Red Storm now rests in the hands of the NCAA selection committee, a group that will put together the field of 68 tournament teams on Sunday.
“It’s in the selection committee’s hands. If you look at our body of work and the number of criteria that they consider, we clearly have some pluses,” Lavin said. “But today was a disappointment. We didn’t help ourselves by losing in the first round.”
The winner of the Big East tournament, like all other conference tournaments, receive an automatic bid to the NCAA bracket.
If St. John’s had defeated Providence, the road to earning that automatic bid would have been much smoother, as Seton Hall upset Villanova, the Big East’s number one seed and the nation’s third-ranked team, earlier in the day.
Providence coach Ed Cooley said after the game that he "would be shocked" if St. John's missed the NCAA tournament, but with an appearance in the dance now nothing more than a farfetched dream, the Red Storm appear destined for the NIT, a 32-team tournament made up of teams that just missed out on making the NCAA's.
Despite the heartbreaking loss, Lavin was quick to say in the postgame press conference that the year was far from a disappointment.
Instead, he praised his team, a squad that appeared like a lost cause in the midst of a five game losing streak in January.
“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.”