St. John’s has been criticized for plenty of things this year. The team is full of poor shooters. People have said the Red Storm has been, at times, out-coached. And the Johnnies are certainly young and mistake prone.
But one thing is certain: when the players want to be, St. John’s is one of the most physical teams in the Big East. Coach Norm Roberts’ team exhibited that toughness Tuesday night.
The Red Storm out-muscled, out-hustled and out-scrapped a bruised 17th-ranked Louisville team, 68-56, at Madison Square Garden in front of a crowd of 5,224.
“They are tough,” said Cardinals coach Rick Pitino, who’s team was without star Taquan Dean. “They get after you. They have quick hands and are hard-nosed-I am impressed with them. They have the toughness to compete in the Big East.”
Perhaps nothing showed that more than a hard Ryan Williams foul with 13:10 left. With his team up 40-38, Williams threw an errant pass, intercepted by Brandon Jenkins. Jenkins cruised down the floor for what he thought would be an easy layup. But the St. John’s senior ran him down, jumped up and brought his left arm down hard on the arms and chest of the Louisville guard, effectively knocking the ball away. It was a good, clean foul. And it may have sent a message.
“That’s just a basketball play,” Williams said. “You don’t let him get a layup.”
The foul propelled St. John’s to a 20-7 run, capped by a 17-foot jumper from the top of the key by junior Aaron Spears (10 points).
“Instead of them being aggressive, they took a step back,” said St. John’s sophomore Eugene Lawrence of how Louisville responded to his team’s physicality.
The Red Storm would have never been in a position to even make that run had it not been for its persistence on the glass. St. John’s (9-6, 2-2) out-rebounded Louisville, 41-26.
Leading the way on the boards with 11 was freshman Anthony Mason Jr., who also had 14 points √¢?” half of which came during that key span, including a big put-back slam that ignited the sparse crowd.
Sophomore Eugene Lawrence tied a career high with 18 points (and he scored his team’s first 12 points), and junior Lamont Hamilton added 15, giving St. John’s four players in double figures.
Junior Daryll Hill, in his second game back from a left knee injury, had 10 rebounds. But Hill, the team’s leading scorer, had only 9 points on 1-of-13 shooting. Still, he proved to be one of the Red Storm’s keys. Without him at Seton Hall, the Pirates pressed late and St. John’s folded, blowing a 20-point second-half lead. He was able to penetrate Louisville’s 2-3 zone to draw fouls, he neutralized the team’s full-court press with his nifty ball handling, and played great defense.
“He was unbelievable defensively and handling their pressure,” Roberts said.
As for Louisville (13-4, 1-3), it might have unearthed an MSG omen. Three players √¢?” Juan Palacios, Andre McGee and Jenkins √¢?” all finished with an unlucky 13 points.
The Cardinals, a Final Four team last year, were without sharp-shooting senior guard Dean, who is suffering from a high ankle sprain. That probably had a direct effect on the team’s 36.7 shooting percentage from the field and its 6-for-22 from three. Especially considering Dean is a career 40-percent shooter from behind the arc and is averaging 15.1 points per game this season. Louisville sophomore David Padgett, averaging 12.3 points, was held to more fouls (4) than points (3).
St. John’s managed to abolish a 25 percent shooting first half with a 53.3-percent second.
The Johnnies actually defeated then-No. 17 N.C. State in the finals of last year’s Holiday Festival. That makes two No. 17s beaten in two years, not to mention the third ranked team the Red Storm has knocked off in Roberts’ two-year tenure. Seems like Pitino doesn’t think it’s anything to write home about though.
“I will say this to you, ‘Don’t get carried away with beating Louisville,'” the former New York Knicks coach said.
Can’t blame the Johnnies if they do, if even for one night.