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IDENTITY CRISIS: STJ OUT-GUNNED

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Identity. Norm Roberts has been talking about it all season.

In games in which his St. John’s team embraces its identity as a defensive team – like in wins against nationally ranked Pittsburgh and Louisville – it succeeds. In games in which the Red Storm shuns its identity (like losses against Marist, Georgetown and Marquette), the team fails miserably.

Roberts has not yet figured out how to get his team to bring the same defensive intensity every game yet and that became painfully obvious in an 81-73 loss against Providence on Saturday at the Dunkin Donuts Center.

The loss pulled Providence into a tie with St. John’s for the 12th spot in the conference standings – the last spot to secure a berth in the Big East tournament. It was one of the games the Red Storm really had to have, but nothing is a guarantee on the road for a team that has one win away from home since December of 2003.

St. John’s (10-10, 3-6) had the lead at halftime, 45-40, shooting 59.3 percent before the break. But Roberts knew if his team kept playing Providence’s run-and-gun style, his team would eventually succumb. His speech after the first half was simple: Get back to your identity and play a defensive game. But the talk fell on deaf ears.

“Well, obviously [the Friars] kept scoring,” Roberts said. “So the message didn’t get through on that.”

Roberts’ team kept the scoring up to start the second half too. Junior guard Daryll Hill (16 points), marred in a nasty slump since a left knee injury, broke out of his funk right after the break. He scored two straight baskets and, on the next possession, drove the lane and found senior Phil Missere (11 points) with a gorgeous wrap-around pass for a layup to give the Red Storm its largest lead – nine points with 17:20 to go.

“Daryll looked like the old Daryll tonight,” Providence coach Tim Welsh said. “He had that look in his eye. that, ‘I can take you off the dribble’ [look].”

So Welsh went back to what didn’t work in the first half, but has worked against previous St. John’s teams. After all, Providence has now beaten the team nine straight times.

“We couldn’t guard them off the dribble,” Welsh said. “So we went back to zone.”

It worked perfectly, but the game stayed close – there were 14 lead changes and 11 ties in total – until the final minute. Freshman Anthony Mason Jr. (12 points) hit a mid-range jumper from the left wing to cut the Providence lead to 74-73 with 53 seconds left. But Friars freshman Sharaud Curry came down the floor and drilled a pull-up jumper 11 seconds later.

“That’s a tough shot to even take at that time,” Roberts said. – “He’s quick, he’s very quick. He’s probably the fastest guy in our league.”

It got worse. Junior Lamont Hamilton (13 points) missed a short jumper in traffic on the next St. John’s possession and PC forward Geoff McDermott got the rebound. Roberts, logically, wanted a foul, but instead, the Friars pushed it up and Herbert Hill (17 points) layed it in , getting fouled in the process. He converted the free throw to give his team a 79-73 lead with 18 seconds left. A one-point lead turned into a six-point one in a little over 30 seconds and St. John’s was done for.

“We just lost our focus,” Hamilton said. “Our focus is defense.”

Marquette 81, St. John’s 61

Behind Steve Novak’s 29 points and six three-pointers, the Golden Eagles shooting stroke (9-for-18 from behind the arc) was too much the for the Red Storm to overcome in Milwaukee on Feb. 1.

Anthony Mason Jr. (14 points), Lamont Hamilton (12) and Daryll Hill (11) were all in double figures for the Johnnies.

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