Daryll Hill had two options. As the junior guard drove down the middle of the lane with 14.9 seconds left and St. John’s down two, he could have either pulled up for a jumper or passed to a cutting Eugene Lawrence on the right baseline.
It would be the last and best opportunity for St. John’s to tie it after storming back from an 18-point deficit with 11:08 left.
So, feeling Lawrence was in a better position to hit the game-tying basket, Hill attempted the pass. The ball was deflected and fell into the hands of West Virginia’s Mike Gansey.
“If I had the last possession back,” Hill said, “I would have shot it.”
Gansey was fouled, made both free throws and the Red Storm’s comeback attempt was thwarted, 66-61, at Madison Square Garden on Sunday, despite the Mountaineers hitting only one field goal over the last 11:18.
Before Gansey’s steal, the senior forward missed two foul shots to give the Johnnies a chance.
Lawrence rushed the ball down the court knowing his team had no timeouts left, drove the lane on the right side and forced up a tough one-handed runner.
“I saw a little opening in the defense and I tried to go for the layup,” said Lawrence (seven points, 10 rebounds, five turnovers).
The shot rimmed out but junior Lamont Hamilton (18 points, 11 rebounds) skyed for the offensive board and passed it out to Hill. Gansey (15 points) found himself at the right place at the right time.
“We’re a senior-laden team,” said West Virginia center Kevin Pittsnogle, who finished with a game-high 19 points and eight rebounds. “We know we can make plays to finish games.”
St. John’s (10-8, 3-4) closed it out on a 25-12 run and had every chance to steal one from the ninth-ranked team in the country in front of its best crowd of the season (7,236). But that costly turnover by Hill (17 points) and the Red Storm’s flat first half was its undoing.
West Virginia (15-4, 6-0) got off to a torrid start from three, draining 8-of-17 from behind the arc, leading St. John’s 36-25 at the break.
But using a motivational halftime speech from coach Norm Roberts, the Red Storm remembered it was the same team that, in its last three games, had upset two ranked teams (Pittsburgh and Louisville) and hung around against No. 1 Connecticut before losing its two best big men.
One of those big men, Aaron Spears had to sit against the Mountaineers out after being ejected for throwing two punches against the Huskies.
His absence wasn’t a major factor down low though. St. John’s out-rebounded West Virginia, 49-25, and ruled the offensive glass, 18-6, good enough for 16 second-chance points to WVU’s two.
That’s not how the Mountaineers have won though. Their success, including an Elite Eight run last season comes from hitting threes and running an efficient offense – two things they didn’t do well in the second half. They were 2-of-10 from behind the arc and shot only 36 percent from the field.
That was what allowed to St. John’s to almost overtake the No. 9-ranked team for the second time in as many weekends.
“If we played [the first half] the way we did in the second half,” Hill said, “it would’ve been a better game.”