Niagara was supposed to be St. John’s first real test of the young season.
Granted, the Purple Eagles are a mid-major, but they spanked the Red Storm last season by 21 points. So St. John’s coach Norm Roberts warned his team it was going to have to take the game in segments, and come up with the big plays when necessary.
“I told the guys that there would be statements made throughout the game,” Roberts said.
St. John’s made the final √¢?” and decisive √¢?” statement in its 67-61 win over Niagara at Carnesecca Arena on Saturday.
Purple Eagles center Clif Brown missed a layup with 1:04 remaining and Red Storm junior Lamont Hamilton bullied his way through opposing players, pulling down a monstrous rebound. Hamilton tossed an outlet to sophomore Eugene Lawrence, who snaked a silky bounce pass to his left to sophomore Cedric Jackson for a lay-in and a foul. Jackson completed the three-point play to give St. John’s a 64-59 lead with 57 seconds left.
“He got that rebound like [he was saying]: ‘I’m a man, this is mine,'” Roberts said of Hamilton.
It proved to be the most vital of Hamilton’s 17 rebounds. Lawrence, who had 11 points and nine boards, sank three free throws down the stretch to seal it.
Niagara (2-1) led at halftime, 37-29, but Hamilton ignited the crowd of 3,821 with a thundering dunk to tie the game with 9:07 left, off an assist from junior Daryll Hill. Hamilton was fouled and converted the free throw to give his team a 51-50 lead.
“Coach was getting a little frustrated with me because I was taking it a little soft,” said Hamilton, who finished with 15 points. “He told me to just attack the rim.”
Hill, a preseason All-Big East first-team selection, was quiet in the first half because of early foul trouble, with only two points on 1-of-2 shooting. But the guard exploded in the second with 14 of his team-high 16 points, hitting two straight three-pointers √¢?” the latter with the shot clock at three √¢?” to give the Red Storm a 57-52 lead with 7:46 to go.
“We had to get that one big rebound,” Roberts said. “Monty (Hamilton) did that tonight. We had to get that big three-pointer with the shot clock running down. Daryll did that for us.”
With Hill only playing 13 minutes in the first half, St. John’s (3-0) was sluggish, especially from the free-throw line, where they shot 2-of-7. The Red Storm came back in the second frame, hitting 14-of-17 from the line.
St. John’s was stingy on defense throughout, shutting down Niagara star guard Lorenzo Miles, who averaged 23 points over the first two games. Miles was 1-for-14 from the field with only seven points. Purple Eagles forward Charron Fischer had 19 points and 13 rebounds.
“Their defense was tougher than our offense,” Niagara coach Joe Mihalich said.
With Hill and Lawrence controlling the ball for most of the second half, St. John’s, which had 10 first-half turnovers, had only three after the break.
Said Lawrence, “They weren’t gonna come in here and punk us like they did last year.”