In the first half of Saturday’s game against then-No. 6 West Virginia, the St. John’s men’s basketball team reminded the Mountaineers why the Big East is the toughest conference in the country.
The Red Storm, 14th in the conference standings, jumped out to a 33-22 lead behind the strong inside presence of junior forwards Justin Burrell and Justin Brownlee, leaving West Virginia Head Coach Bob Huggins searching for answers.
But in the second half, West Virginia reminded St. John’s why they sit near the top of the toughest conference in the country.
The Mountaineers, buoyed by a season-high 33-points and a career high seven three-pointers from senior forward Da’Sean Butler, outscored the Johnnies by 30 points in the second half to hand St. John’s its eighth loss in conference play, 79-60.
The loss is the fifth in a row for the Red Storm, dropping them to 12-10 and 2-8 in the Big East. West Virginia improved to 20-3, 8-2 in the Big East.
In the first half, St. John’s played its best ball of the year. With starters Malik Boothe and Sean Evans on the bench due to early foul trouble, the Johnnies showcased their depth.
Eleven players saw action in the first half, leading to 23 bench points.
“We executed the game plan like coach asked us (in the first half),” Malik Stith said.Freshman point guard Malik Stith said the game plan was the push the pace at every opportunity. “They’re an offensive rebounding team, so whenever we got a rebound we wanted to take advantage and run,” he said.
Head Coach Norm Roberts agreed, “We were able to get out and run, attack and those things. We weren’t able to do that in the second half.”
The biggest difference between the two halves was the defensive intensity of West Virginia and the Mountaineers’ switch from a man-to-man defense to a 1-3-1 zone. St. John’s was able to push the ball up the floor and get good shots off in transition against the man defense in the first half, but appeared helpless against the zone.
“You can practice (the zone) for two days, but you can’t really get the hang of it in two days,” Butler said. “You don’t know what people on the other team are going to do, as far as how they guard. It’s very difficult to just bring it up a couple days in practice [and succeed against it].”
“We knew they were going to play the zone,” said Roberts. “It’s not something you can simulate in practice because of their length.”
While Roberts may have known it was coming, his team’s offense was still punchless against it. After eight straight points to start the second half from junior guard Paris Horne put the score at 41-26 with 17:25 left, St. John’s went cold, scoring only four points in the next eight minutes.
By the time Omari Lawrence muscled in a layup with 9:48 left, St. John’s had taken two timeouts in addition to a media timeout, but to no avail. The Red Storm fell behind on one of Butler’s three-pointers in the midst of a 16-0 West Virginia run and never recovered.
Roberts said the team had no answers for the West Virginia defense. “The zone slows down the game,” Roberts said. “Then when you’re not getting stops on the other end, that compounds it and that’s why you can’t get out and run.”
Butler, however, succeeded against everything St. John’s threw at him in the second half. After scoring nine points in the first half, he exploded for 24 in the second half, including five three-pointers.
“A great player in our league really got hot,” Roberts said. “But we didn’t do a good job of piggybacking screens and staying on them throughout the whole second half.”
The Mountaineers shot 19-of-28 in the second half and scored 57 points, the most given up by St. John’s in a half this season.
The Johnnies host Louisville at Madison Square Garden on Thursday.