The St. John's Red Storm started slow against Holy Cross, but eventually hit their stride.
The Johnnies knocked off the Crusaders, 65-53, on Wednesday night in a pre-Thanksgiving non-conference clash. The two squads were actually tied going into halftime, but Steve Lavin's young group overwhelmed its opponent in the second frame.
St. John's freshman JaKarr Sampson had his best performance yet, scoring 20 points on an efficient 10-15 shooting. D`Angelo Harrison scored 17 points, and Phil Greene IV added 15. St. John's improves to 3-2, Holy Cross drops to 3-2 on the season.
Sampson showed against Holy Cross how good he can become in his first season. He is proving that his jump shot can in fact be consistent, and that he can control his emotions.
Through the first ten minutes, St. John's looked as if they had just spent a few days in Charleston, away from basketball. They were out of sync both offensively and, more notably, defensively, allowing high-percentage looks to Holy Cross big men Phil Beans and Dave Dudzinski.
But then the Johnnies became more comfortable. D`Angelo Harrison, Phil Greene, and JaKarr Sampson each converted jumpers to lessen the Crusader's once 9-point lead. On the other side of the ball, Chris Obekpa and Felix Balamou were altering Holy Cross' shots.
In fact, Balamou was just as (if not more) important to the Johnnies' recovery effort as anyone else. Though he added only two points before halftime, he was everywhere - grabbing boards, swatting lay-up attempts, and diving for loose balls.
Steve Lavin hinted on Tuesday that Balamou and Marc-Antoine Bourgault would see more minutes in upcoming games to aid tired legs. On Wednesday, he stayed true to his promise - or, at least halfway. Balamou played 22 important minutes for the Red Storm, while Bourgault only played two minutes.
"As a player, I know one thing. When you play hard to help the team win, you're going to play," Balamou mentioned after the game. "I just want to be quiet and do my thing."
Lavin mentioned that Balamou was a nice spark for his team late in the first half, who helped change the momentum and feel of the game.
Though it was Sampson that scored almost a third of the Johnnies points on Wednesday, he couldn't help but credit his fellow freshman teammate for providing a spark.
"Felix's athleticism is crazy. He's way more athletic than I am, and I know it," Sampson said. "He does everything, including blocking shots."
Speaking of athleticism, Obekpa blocked six Crusader shots - the most spectacular of which came from behind their point guard at the top of the key.
"I'm starting to feel more relaxed and comfortable playing with my teammates," JaKarr Sampson mentioned. "I've been in the gym working on my shot. That's what I did all summer long."
After halftime, the athleticism disparity between the Red Storm and Holy Cross took precedent. But, even so, the Johnnies weren't able to separate from the pesky Crusaders out of the Patriot League.
It wasn't until the final five or six minutes that St. John's pulled away and created a 10-point cushion. The Johnnies tightened up things defensively. After allowing 18 first half points in the paint, Holy Cross only scored 4 in the interior after halftime.
"I thought in the second half, we played some of our best ball of the season," Lavin said. "The staff is getting a better feel for our personnel and how to utilize our newcomers and returning players. We were able to pressure Holy Cross effectively, and take away their ability to window shop."
Dave Dudzinski and Justin Burrell (no relation) scored 12 points each for Holy Cross in the losing effort.
St. John's will take a few days off before welcoming Florida Gulf Coast to Carnesecca Arena on Saturday night.