Johnnies sweep Bulldogs at the Garden

The St. John’s men’s basketball team looked like two totally different teams on Tuesday night as they had immense struggles in the first half but looked unstoppable in the second half, leading to a 77-52 victory over Butler.

“I thought we played better in the second half and I was pleased that we were able to get the win,” St. John’s head coach Steve Lavin said. “We now move forward with our focus turning to Villanova. I thought in the first half Butler beat us to the punch in every aspect of play. I didn’t think we came out with the appropriate sense of urgency or the sharpness that we would prefer. It just seemed like we were in one of those day-late, dollar-short, going-in-the-wrong-direction scenarios for the first 20 minutes. But we were better in the second half.”

Sophomore forward JaKarr Sampson and junior guard Jamal Branch stepped up for a St. John’s team that had its early offensive struggles. Sampson had his best game of the season on the offensive end scoring a career-high 23 points, shooting 11-for-15 from the floor, while grabbing eight rebounds. Branch, who missed the last two games because of oral surgery, gave the Red Storm great production off the bench with 10 points, five assists, and four rebounds.

“I was just trying to get my teammates involved doing what I’m supposed to do,” Branch said. “Guards are supposed to get their teammates involved, get guys in the right position to score and play defense.”

The Red Storm’s (18-9, 8-6) victory over the Bulldog’s (12-14, 2-12) gives the Johnnies nine wins in its last 10 games and its sixth straight in Big East play.

On Tuesday evening St. John’s received word from team doctors that sophomore center Chris Obekpa is going to be out 10-14 days with a sprain and bone bruise in his right ankle that was suffered in practice on Monday. The Red Storm are going to have to replace Obkepa’s inside presence and Senior forward Orlando Sanchez took on the role on Tuesday as he had a career-high 11 rebounds.

“We kept the same mindset and we wanted to be aggressive,” JaKarr Sampson said on playing without Obkepa. “We were still going to rebound, play defense and let our defense create our offense, but whenever your leading shot blocker and leader on defense is out, you know there is going to be some change. We came out there the same way mentally, nothing was different.”

St. John’s came out with a lack of energy in the first half and this showed as the Red Storm shot 11-for-30 (36.7 percent) from the floor and allowing Butler to have a 12-25 (48 percent) shooting performance. Butler’s Khyle Marshall put up full game numbers in only the first half scoring 16 points and getting seven rebounds. The Johnnies were lucky to trail by only three, 33-30, at the half.

The second half was a complete about-face for St. John’s as they dominated the half. The Red Storm went on two separate runs of 14-2 to open the half and 13-2 from 13:00 to 7:14 to put away a struggling Butler team. The Johnnies scored 47 points in the half while shooting 17-for-28 (60.7 percent) from the field.  Butler struggled to say the least in the half, scoring only 19 points while shooting 7-for-35 (20 percent) from the floor. St. John’s also held Marshall to zero points and zero rebounds in the second half.

“At halftime, we said that we worked too hard to get ourselves into this position, to be third in the Big East,” Sampson said. “We worked too hard to let this slip away. We came out more aggressive and with more energy than we did in the first half.”

St. John’s will be looking to extend their six game winning streak on Saturday as they head to Philadelphia to play No. 9/11 Villanova.