Despite the strong efforts of five Johnnies in double-digits, Niagara clipped the St. John’s men’s basketball team (4-2) in a 77-74 victory on Dec. 15 at Carnesecca Arena. The win not only advanced the Purple Eagles to a 5-3 record overall, but also was the team’s second time in its 98 meetings with the Johnnies to dominate on the Queens home court.
“We’re awful proud of winning,” said Niagara head coach Joe Mihalich. “This is a 90-game rivalry– we’ve been playing them since 1909. It’s a special game for us.”
After a 13-day layover for finals, the Johnnies had hopes of chipping off any rust early on. St. John’s attempted to pressure the ball to force turnovers and keep it in possession long enough to go on a substantial run, but could not find the rhythm they were looking for.
Niagara’s Charron Fisher led all scorers by dropping 30 points and 14 rebounds, while teammate Stanley Hodge finished with 17 points and seven boards.
The Johnnies were only able to capture a seven-point lead at the 12:42 mark of the second half, but could not keep the momentum and soon the Purple Eagles were within one by the 8:41 mark. St. John’s struggled to go on another run, but could only grasp a five-point lead, which Niagara chopped back down to one again within the next minute.
“We were careless with the ball and we make no excuses,” said St. John’s head coach Norm Roberts. “We got into foul trouble and had to play some different line-ups and do some different things.”
The game became easier for Niagara when St. John’s inside man, freshman forward Justin Burrell picked up his fifth foul. Burrell committed the error while guarding Niagara’s Anthony Nelson on a line drive to the basket and fouled out with 3:41 remaining in the second half. Nelson was sent to the charity stripe after making the bucket and completed the three-point play to tie the score 64-all.
“I thought it was big for us,” Fisher said. “He was big inside and was giving us problems. Once he went out of the game, we knew we had a better chance.”
Burrell finished with a double-double, 13 points and 10 rebounds.
Once Burrell left the hardwood, each possession was crucial to the outcome of the game. Both teams engaged in a bucket-for-bucket battle down the stretch. Niagara was to take charge being up by as much as five points with 21 seconds left to play, 75-70. However, sophomore guard Larry Wright hit a three-pointer four seconds later off a feed from senior tri-captain Eugene Lawrence to bring the Storm within reach, only being down by two.
After Niagara’s Tyrone Lewis missed the second of his free throw attempts, making only the first, the Johnnies had a chance at one more play to tie the game in the ticking final four seconds in regulation. Lawrence, who Roberts said was looking for a drive inside to pop the ball back out to Wright for a trey, could not find an open driving lane to execute the set play. Lawrence threw up a prayer from the perimeter and missed as Hodge grabbed the loose ball and Niagara maintained possession.
Wright finished with a team high 18 points, connecting on 4-of-7 from the perimeter. Freshman D.J. Kennedy added 10 points and 11 rebounds, while Lawrence and freshman Paris Horne contributed 11 and 12 points, respectively.
The faster tempo of the game and drastically lopsided referee foul calls, seemed to leave the Johnnies a bit out of character as the Red Storm committed many unforced turnovers. Niagara capitalized on the 18 St. John’s turnovers converting them into 21 points and went on 32-of-46 from the charity stripe to seal the deal on the win. The Johnnies shot 49.1% from the field and 54.3% behind the arc.
“[Niagara] made plays when they needed to make plays and we came up short,” said Roberts. “But we’re going to learn from it and we’ll get better.”
The defeat was St. John’s first home loss of the season.