Johnnies come close, but can’t pull upset vs. ‘Cuse

The St. John’s men’s basketball team failed to pull off a defining upset over No. 2 Syracuse falling 68-63 after a resurgent second half in front of an energized crowd of 16,357 at Madison Square Garden Sunday afternoon.

The Red Storm (6-3) recovered from a first half where they fell behind by as many as 14 points to grab their first lead with 8:25 remaining. The contest remained neck-and-neck until it all started to unravel with less than four minutes left when costly turnovers and missed free throws from junior guard D’Angelo Harrison and sophomore forward JaKarr Sampson sealed the victory for the Orange (9-0).

“That’s going to kill me,” Sampson said referring to his trip to the line. “I’ve been thinking about that since I missed it. Those two I felt was a big part of the game. Me missing two big free throws, I felt like it turned the momentum.

St. John’s struggled against Syracuse’s zone in the first half, shooting 34.5 percent and failing to make a 3-point shot. The team came out renewed in the second half, erasing the deficit completely and bringing the half red, half orange Garden to its feet.

“It’s a game of runs,” head coach Steve Lavin said. “They had their first half run, we had our second half run and then they closed the last four minutes and change on a run.”

“They made the final push and that’s why there’s a winner and a loser,” he added.

Freshman guard Rysheed Jordan took another step to showing his full capabilities scoring 13 points including shooting 9-for-9 from the line. His point guard abilities helped St. John’s battle the Syracuse zone defense in the second half.

“That’s what we’ve been waiting for this whole year,” junior Sir’Dominic Pointer said. “I’d say it was his best game of the year. He made free throws. He made shots. That’s what we look for in Rysheed – to attack the rim and draw fouls.”

Harrison led the team with 21 points and Sampson added 12. Senior forward Orlando Sanchez led the rebounding game with seven and sophomore center Chris Obekpa recorded three blocks.

Despite going up against the No. 2 team in the country and some positives that jumped out on the statistics page, Lavin said he expected more.

“I’d like to think they’re already at a point in their careers where they understand moral victories not good enough,” he said. “This is our home court and we came to win today.”

Forward CJ Fair and guard Tyler Ennis both led Syracuse with 21 points each. Together, they helped power the Orange to a victory with baskets at key moments late in the second half despite Fair recording four fouls.

“[Ennis] really struggled in the second half,” Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim said. “He was really playing like a freshman and he doesn’t do that usually, but then he made a couple of unbelievable plays – really good plays – and then CJ made plays down the stretch.”

The contest between the former Big East foes will continue next season at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y. at a date to be announced. While there’s nothing set beyond that, both coaches have expressed interest in continuing the series.

“I like playing in New York and we’ve said many times we’re going to play in New York,” Boeheim said. “St. John’s – I’m sure we’ll continue playing. We like coming here.”

While Syracuse won the latest edition of the series and has won each game dating back to 2007, Lavin didn’t shy from entering the banter about the state of New York basketball.

“It’s been a great rivalry, but it’s been dominated by Syracuse of late,” Lavin said. “If I was a Syracuse fan, I understand the mindset that even though they’re not from the city, I understand there’s so many alumni here that live in the city so they probably feel even though they’re not in the city and the school’s not in the city and their home court’s not in the city that somehow they associate Syracuse with the city.

“But the reality is St. John’s is in the city, our home court’s in the city and we’ve always been in the city, so we are New York City’s team,” he said.