Maybe the St. John’s men’s basketball team hadn’t quite gotten over its bubble-bursting loss in the Big East Tournament. Maybe it couldn’t get excited in front of a sparse crowd usually seen at an exhibition game. Maybe it was because it was playing the lowest possible seed.
Whatever the reason, St. John’s fell to Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT 89-78 yesterday at Carnesecca Arena despite a ferocious comeback by the home team in the waning moments.
The Colonials (22-13, 14-2) opened the game on a 19-2 run and never lost the lead despite the Red Storm (20-13, 10-8 Big East) getting within striking distance on a late 15-0 run. The loss ended a season that started with high expectations.
“We were pretty upset that we didn’t make the tournament, but they just started hot and everything went in,” sophomore guard Jamal Branch said. “We contested [the shots]. It just kept falling.”
St. John’s head coach Steve Lavin characterized the last few years of the program as having made progress – particularly in the win column – but said in terms of achieving the goal of making the NCAA tournament, the season was disappointing.
“This group went from 13 wins to 17 wins to 20 wins. That’s clear progress,” Lavin said. “Tonight was disappointing because we didn’t bring forth the effort or purposeful play that would have allowed us to be competitive.”
The No. 1-seeded Johnnies, who were favored by 15.5 points over the No. 8 Colonials, couldn’t stop the opposition’s field goal shooting and even when the shots stopped falling, they couldn’t pick up the slack. Robert Morris finished 50 percent (16-of-32) from behind the arc and 48.2 percent (27-of-56) from the field.
St. John’s, who was without freshman guard Rysheed Jordan because of tonsillitis, made the same amount of 3-pointers, but had five more attempts for a percentage of 43.2. The big difference came from the field with the Red Storm going 37.2 percent.
Branch led the team with a career-high 22 points, followed by 18 from sophomore guard Max Hooper who kept the team in the game for a time starting off 3-of-3 from 3-point range and finished 6-of-12 overall.
Guard Karvel Anderson, who finished with 38 points for Robert Morris, touched on mentality heading into an NIT game after hoping for an NCAA bid. Robert Morris pulled off a similar upset last year, upending No. 1 Kentucky in the first round.
“A lot of teams after losing or not making the NCAA tournament, they come in with their heads down and kind of sad and a lot of people don’t feel like the NIT is worth their time,” Anderson said. “But we think differently.”
Following Anderson, forward Lucky Jones had 25 points and nine rebounds, and guard Anthony Myers-Pate finished with 11 points.
After a year of expectations that weren’t met by a team that had depth and experience, Lavin noted the pressures that will mount moving forward.
“Next season will be the veteran group, returning as many lettermen as any team in the league,” Lavin said. “This group made progress. Naturally, the expectations will be ratcheted up with what we return.”