With about 30 seconds left in St. John’s stunning home loss to No. 25 Cincinnati on Jan. 22, I sent a text message to a friend sitting in the student section.
“Scary thought,” it read, “but they’ve been here before.”
I sent that when the Red Storm clung to a one-point lead and Dwight Hardy stepped to the free throw line to shoot a one-and-one.
St. John’s had been in this position already this season, against St. Bonaventure, and was under similar circumstances last year against Marquette.
In each of those games, the opposition stormed up the floor and drained the game-winning shot, and there was the eerie sense that it could just as easily happen again if Hardy missed the free throw.
He did, the Bearcats’ Yancy Gates grabbed the rebound, and Cincinnati called timeout.
Suddenly, the question of who would join Andrew Nicholson and Jimmy Butler—those responsible for the game-winners for St. Bonaventure and Marquette, respectively—popped into my head.
Turns out, it was Gates, who backed down Justin Burrell and powered his way to a bank shot from the left side and went to the line after the St. John’s forward fouled him on the shot attempt.
“I think Justin Burrell stopped him three times on that play, but Yancy refused to settle for a jump shot or any type of fadeaway,” Cincinnati head coach Mick Cronin said. “It was a great individual play by Yancy in that situation.”
The individual play was something Cronin wanted to run the entire game for the junior forward, but the Red Storm’s defense had been so tight at times that the coach didn’t think his team could execute it.
St. John’s forced 17 turnovers, including four in the first five minutes of the game, but Cronin kept the play in mind throughout the game and unleashed it at the right time.
Strangely, the team wasn’t too upset with the outcome.
“I don’t think [the loss is] a disappointment,” senior point guard Malik Boothe said. “Nobody came into the locker room saying that they didn’t leave everything out on the court. We came in here and played a tough game. It was a game where not a lot of scoring was happening. It was just a tough shot at the end of the game that they made.”
Unfortunately, Boothe’s finding of a silver lining from Saturday’s game is like getting a C in math but being proud of your A in gym.
Head coach Steve Lavin echoed his point guard’s words, saying his team accomplished each of its goals against Cincinnati except coming away with the win.
“This week we asked the players three areas we really wanted to concentrate on and one was taking care of the ball, they delivered on that with nine turnovers,” Lavin said. “Another was to play through the post. We executed very well in terms of getting paint-touches and post-touches. The third was competing and playing aggressively for 40 minutes, so all three of the aspects of play that we asked for this week, the kids delivered on.”
St. John’s did come close to pulling the upset, but as the adage goes, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.
Against a ranked opponent, before the first sellout crowd at Carnesecca Arena in more than two years, with a senior-laden team and a head coach who has been the darling of the college basketball world, St. John’s inability to take control of the game led to its most disappointing loss of the season, even if
the Johnnies won’t admit to it.
Sure, St. John’s stifled Cincinnati’s offense early, but the Johnnies squandered an early 8-2 lead and let the Bearcats go on an 11-0 run to close out the first half, forcing just one turnover during that span.
By not having the right guys get to the free throw line, the Red Storm also kept precious points off the board, points that would have widened any of the team’s leads throughout the game.
Cincinnati, under the strategy of fouling St. John’s big men, held the Red Storm to 12-of-26 from the line.
“We were trying to be committed by not giving up lay-ups, especially to their big guys, who have historically struggled in the Big East from the foul line,” Cronin said.
So for all of Sean Evans’ roars and fist pumps after drawing fouls, he went just 4-of-7 from the line, missing one free throw on each of his two-shot trips to the line. Burrell went 1-of-4.
In addition, Hardy and senior guard D.J. Kennedy—shooters who are nearly automatic from the stripe—went a combined 4-for-9, with Hardy’s missed one-and-one attempt being his first—and only—attempt of the game.
Despite this, the Red Storm managed to erase a seven-point deficit midway through the second half. However, they would volley the lead five times during the final seven minutes and rarely hold the lead for any longer than one possession.
As the crowd of 5,602 at Carnesecca Arena erupted with cheers after each Red Storm basket, Cincinnati drove up the floor and scored.
Cincinnati didn’t have many fans in the crowd wearing their black and red claw logo, but their defiance spoke louder than the Carnesecca crowd’s screams.