Trap game? What trap game?
Well, for 20 minutes on Tuesday night, it seemed as though St. John’s was headed towards a major letdown against Butler at Madison Square Garden. Then, JaKarr Sampson happened and all was well in Manhattan.
Sampson scored a career-high 23 points as St. John’s routed Butler in the second half on their way to a 77-52 win. The Johnnies (18-9, 8-6) now have won six straight games and nine of their last 10 games. They also have sole possession of third place in the Big East, at least for one night.
St. John’s eventually handled Butler (12-14, 2-12) much in the same way they did Jan. 25 in Indiana. The Bulldogs had a 33-30 lead at halftime in this one, but the Johnnies started the second stanza on a 23-5 run. Butler only scored 18 second-half points in their loss to St. John’s last month. On Tuesday night, the Bulldogs managed 19 second-half points.
Sampson took over the scoring workload for the Johnnies in the second half. With D’Angelo Harrison and Rysheed Jordan struggling after great performances against Georgetown, Sampson attacked the bucket and used his low-post game to muscle his way to the rim.
The first half was a completely different story for St. John’s.
"I wasn't pleased in the first half," head coach Steve Lavin said. "I feel like we didn't have a sense of urgency. We didn't play with any pace or sharpness."
Indeed, the Johnnies mightily struggled to find a rhythm in the first half, especially without Chris Obekpa in the lineup. The school announced before the game he will miss 10-to-14 days with an ankle injury. Obekpa’s absence hurt St. John’s for much of the first 20 minutes.
Khyle Marshall was one of the few Bulldogs who could’ve hurt St. John’s, and he did so in the first half scoring 16 points on 6-of-9 shooting. Without Obekpa’s length in the middle, Marshall slashed to the bucket at will as Orlando Sanchez struggled to contain him. Marshall, however, had the same problem the rest of the Bulldogs had in the second half and did not score again.
"We knew in the second half we had to lock him down," Sampson said about Marshall. "He had 16 [points] and 7 [rebounds] at half and usually that's what people have in a game."
With Harrison (7 points) and Jordan (7 points) struggling for most of the game, Jamal Branch made a nice return after missing two games due to oral surgery. Branch finished with 12 points on 4-of-6 shooting including a 3-pointer.
"I was just looking to get my teammates involved," said Branch, who finished with five assists. "That's what a point guard job. That's all I did."
St. John’s did just about everything better in the second half. They played better defense. They attacked the rim more. They better controlled the situation. The Johnnies didn’t turn in a crisp performance, which is something they’ll need to address this week heading into Philadelphia Saturday against Villanova.
"Every aspect thy beat us in the first," Lavin said. "We beat them in every aspect in the second. It was a tale of two halves."
Again, now the attention is on Saturday against Villanova at 1:30 p.m. at the Well Fargo Center. The Wildcats had a scare of their own Tuesday night as they beat Providence 82-79 in overtime. St. John’s already has one signature win on their NCAA Tournament resume. A second one Saturday would go a long way to solidifying a Big Dance invitation.