After two hard-fought victories on earlier this week, St. John's finally made it look easy on Sunday at Carnesecca Arena.
The Red Storm defeated University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) going away, 82-59. Steve Lavin's youthful squad utilized its over-powering athleticism and speed to bury the Retrievers, who are expected to be a bottom-feeder in this year's America East Conference.
Nurideen Lindsey's near triple-double performance (15 points, 10 rebounds, 9 assists) and Malik Stith's surprising offensive spark (11 points on 4-7 shooting) catapulted the Johnnies to an anxiety-free win. St. John's, 3-0, now turns its attention to its Madison Square Garden debut in the Coaches vs. Cancer/ 2K Sports Classic against Arizona on Thursday.
More below the fold.
On Friday, St. John's associate head coach Mike Dunlap, Malik Stith, and Phil Greene emphasized the importance of getting off to a good first half start. Sunday's first frame wasn't a Van Gogh, but there were certainly some noteworthy improvements.
The Red Storm immediately fell behind UMBC 10-3 in the opening minutes. But the Johnnies outscored the Retrievers 36-24 from there to grab a 5-point halftime lead. St. John's, who trailed both William & Mary and Lehigh at the intermission, was relieved to finally go into the locker room on top.
"There was breakthrough in terms of our sustained energy and intensity," said Coach Lavin afterwards. "Phil Greene gave us a real spark with a big play at the end of the half. It gave us a lift."
Much like its previous two games, the Johnnies overwhelmed the opponent in the second half. It didn't take long for St. John's to extend its narrow lead into a comfortable one.
Stith, who isn't known as an offensive threat, gave his team a major boost. The man they call "Pops" surprised everyone with his offensive aggression in the minutes just after halftime. His 11 points, something the Red Storm would love to see more of in the future, was just two shy of his career high.
"Overall, [Stith] gave our team a huge lift-up," Lindsey mentioned. "His offensive aggression transferred over to defensive aggression. We feed off his energy."
But it might be Lindsey's energy that the team feeds off most. Nurideen almost became the first St. John's player since Ron Artest (excuse me, Metta World Peace) to obtain a triple-double in a single game. The image of Lindsey finishing with the left hand in transition is becoming implanted in memory.
"[Lindsey's] numbers certainly reflect a special performance," Lavin said. "Like a surgeon, he cut up our opponent today."
But, like always, the Red Storm continues to emphasize the importance of defense. St. John's was actually seen out of the usual zone character throughout much of the game; Lavin decided to play man-to-man defensive schemes to minimize the open looks along the perimeter.
"The nice thing about the match-up zone is that its principles are similar to man-to-man in terms of pressure," Lavin remarked. "While we improve one, it also improves the other. We'll salt and pepper it."
The head coach definitely used his month-long recovery period creating a new batch of the world-famous Lavin Lines.
While the defensive pressure created 20 turnovers, St. John's also gave the ball away a surprising 14 times. When the Red Storm begins playing more formidable opponents, such sloppiness won't go as unnoticed.
It won't be a long wait for those more formidable opponents. St. John's will bring its undefeated record to the big stage for the first time on Thursday against the 16th-ranked Arizona Wildcats.
"Under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden playing top 20 teams, there are going to be some butterflies," Lavin admitted. "I'm sure in the first five minutes, our kids will have that natural adrenaline."
It'll be how this young group handles that adrenaline that will create a more accurate gauge of current standing. After months of high-profile hype, St. John's fans will finally get a glimpse of what they really have.
"I'll be able to answer more questions on Thursday or Friday in a more informed way," Lavin said. "Like a locomotive, we're just pulling out of the station."
Chase Plummer had 12 points and 10 total rebounds for the Retrievers. Brian Neller scored 13 on 4-12 shooting. Center Nate Basalyga had 9 rebounds (5 offensive).
Check back in to Rumble in the coming days for more coverage of Sunday's win and the upcoming 2k Sports Classic match-up.