USA TODAY Sports
The Johnnies finished off non-conference with a gut-wrenching loss to UNC-Asheville.
The world didn't end on Friday. But St. John's did blow a 17-point lead and fell to the Big South's UNC-Asheville.
The Red Storm (8-4) seemed comfortable for the first 30 minutes, but the UNC-Asheville Bulldogs (5-7) owned the final 10 minutes and wound up stunning the Johnnies, 72-65, on the Carnesecca Arena floor.
Jeremy Atkinson came into Friday as UNC-Asheville's leading scorer with 17.7 points per game. He certainly played to his stat sheet against St. John's, and then some, scoring 31 points for the Bulldogs on 9-17 shooting.
St. John's led at the half, 40-30, behind Jamal Branch's stellar first half debut. Branch entered the game at the 13:55 mark and made his impact immediately. Within moments, he had grabbed a rebound and delivered two slick assists. He finished with 2 points and 2 assists in 14 minutes.
In fact, Branch's offensive facilitation was contagious early on for the Red Storm. The team shot an incredibly efficient 48.6% (17-35) from the field in the first half, which included three conversions from behind the arc.
St. John's didn't have their typical first half slow start, but they seemed to come out a lethargic after halftime. Early in the second half, St. John's became sloppy with the ball and allowed their lead (that was once 17, and 15 in the second half) dwindle to just 1 with 7:30 left.
UNC-Asheville tied the game with under 7 minutes left before D'Angelo Harrison converted an old-fashioned three-point play. But Atkinson came right back on the other end of the floor with a three of his own and nodded the score at 58-58.
A Keith Hornsby three-pointer as the shot clock was expiring gave the Bulldogs the lead back - a lead they wouldn't relinquish. Hornsby scored 14 points on the night.
With a blink of an eye, the Bulldogs had built up a 7-point lead as part of a stunning 23-4 run. The cohesiveness that St. John's had played with in the first half was nowhere to be found.
"We didn't sustain and we didn't finish off this game," Steve Lavin said afterwards. "UNC-Asheville was opportunistic in the way they fought back. When you have a big lead and lose it, it's a combination of a breakdown and the opponent's fight."
The Red Storm had an opportunity to tie the game in the final minute, but Harrison threw an errant pass for a critical unforced turnover, ending any chances at pushing the game into an extra frame.
As Big East play commences, the Johnnies will need to take better care of the rock, as they are among the national leaders in turnovers. They gave it up 13 times on Friday night.
"I came off the screen and the lane opened up. I saw Phil in the corner, but the guy made a great play stepping in to get the pass," Harrison said of the play.
For most of the game, St. John's was playing even with UNC-Asheville on the boards. But as the buzzer sounded, the Red Storm's biggest liability had come to haunt them again as the Bulldogs out-rebounded them 40-30.
St. John's had a considerable size advantage on UNC-Asheville, yet still got out-scored in the paint by 16 points (44-28) and allowed 17 second chance points.
Harrison led the way for the Johnnies with 24 points, while JaKarr Sampson added 17.
"I really like this team. Obviously, we'd rather be 12-0, 11-1, or 10-2 and not 8-4," Lavin mentioned. "I came into this season expecting nothing other than a really challenging season. When you have this degree of youth, it's an incredible challenge, but one that you want."
St. John's will have to sit on this loss for 11 days before travelling down to Philadelphia to take on VIllanova in the Big East opener on January 2nd.