When Steve Lavin called St. Mary's (MD) head coach Chris Harney earlier this year to set up a preseason exhibition, the idea was to test his young, inexperienced squad against Harney's older, experienced group. After tonight, Lavin doesn't have to worry about not challenging his new squad - the Red Storm got a test.
The Red Storm ultimately defeated the St. Mary's Seahawks 77-70 on Tuesday, but it wasn't pretty. It wasn't the kind of test you breeze through and finish in a half hour. It was the type where you sit there pulling your hair out for the first 90 minutes until it all finally comes together in the end. Without their head coach once again, the Johnnies almost fell to a Division III school on their home court.
In a game defined by shooting woes from both the three-point and free-throw lines, St. John's and its fans were humbled by the realities of a long process of learning and growing pains. It was a win, but the Johnnies had to sweat along the way, coming from behind in the second half.
Much like last week's exhibition with CW Post, it took St. John's a while to get going offensively on this night. You can make the case that they didn't really get it going. It felt like every shot found a different spot on the rim and missed in its own unique way. St. John's just couldn't get into the flow.
The story of the game is simple. For 35 minutes, the Red Storm couldn't buy a free-throw conversion. They were even 7-24 from the charity stripe at one point. Each clank looked like a late Halloween reenactment of last year's heartbreaking loss to Cincinnati.
Then Maurice Harkless made two consecutive free-throws to pull the Johnnies even, 56-56. Harkless, who led St. John's on Tuesday with 20 points and 12 rebounds (his second double-double in his many games), is expected to become a leader for the Red Storm. This was your first prime example.
"As a whole, I feel like we needed a game like this," said Harkless after the game. "[St. Mary's] was a tough, scrappy team."
That they were. Harney's squad, who is no stranger to winning, is regarded as one of the elite programs in Division III college basketball. After finishing 2010-11 with an impressive 25 wins, St. Mary's seems to be well on their way to another successful season. Devin Spencer led the Seahawks with 25 points in 29 minutes.
Through the murkiness of the low percentages and the close score, St. John's certainly has positives to take away from this game. It is a guarantee that they will be faced with a number of tight games in both non-conference and Big East play. The more experience they can get in such situations, the better.
"We're happy with our win, but games like this in our conference are going to be tough," explained guard Nurideen Lindsey. "This was a good start for us tonight to get used to how it's going to be."
An encouraging component for the Red Storm is that they found noticeable improvement in the areas emphasized throughout the week in practice. Defensively, St. John's held St. Mary's to a shooting percentage 7.3% lower than that they allowed to CW Post a week ago. They also increased the rebounding differential from 0 to +12.
"I thought we did a lot better than we did last week defensively," said assistant coach Rico Hines. "We did well getting back from our '22' (full court) to half court set."
There probably isn't much from this game that comes as much of a surprise. St. John's is a young team and has a thin roster. There is simply no possible way for every aspect of the game to develop smoothly. The Johnnies will continue to work hard in practice and do what they keep reiterating over and over again - attempt to get better.
"[Our guys] have gotten better since the first day they stepped on the court," Hines commented. "They have their up-and-down days because they're young, but they've been surprisingly consistent."
St. John's will attempt to find more consistency as the year progresses, and give the fans fewer scares. It's going to be a tough, challenging test; and we can be sure that it won't be an easy A.
|St. John's||St. Mary's (MD)|
|Points||Harkless (20)||Spencer (25)|
|Rebounds||Harkless (12)||MacAuley (8)|
|Assists||Lindsey (4)||Wise (4)|
|Steals||Pointer (3)||Spencer (3)|
|Turnovers||Lindsey (4)||Spencer (5)|