This one was always going to be tough. Yet on Sunday morning, hours before St. John's was to take the floor as double-digit underdogs, it got even tougher.
St. John's (15-9, 7-5 Big East) fell, 77-58, to #9 Syracuse Orange (20-3, 8-2) at the Carrier Dome without their head coach Steve Lavin in the building. Lavin's father, Cap, passed away in the San Francisco area on Sunday morning, leaving the Johnnies with heavy hearts and under the leadership of assistant coach Rico Hines.
St. John's star freshman forward JaKarr Sampson had one of his most impressive performances of the season on Sunday, scoring 21 points on an efficient 10-14 shooting.
Syracuse came out flexing their muscles early, getting out to a 21-10 lead in the first ten minutes. They made 50% of their shots in the first half. But, as expected, the game was defined by what happened - or didn't happen - on the other end of the floor.
The Orange's suffocating zone defense may make for an uncomfortable match-up for St. John's, but sloppy play plagued the Red Storm. The Johnnies won six of its last seven games by taking care of the ball, yet they turned it over an uncharacteristic 11 times before intermission against Syracuse.
Late in the first half, D`Angelo Harrison picked up his third foul and was forced to sit until halftime. St. John's needed he and Marc-Antoine Bourgault to make shots from the perimeter to crack the zone and give the Red Storm a legitimate chance. The went a combined 0-7 from behind the arc before the half.
St. John's came out of the locker room looking to prove that they belonged playing with the Orange. A quick 5-point spurt cut the Orange's halftime lead (37-24) to just eight points.
After a Bourgault three and a JaKarr Sampson lay-in, the Johnnies cut the deficit to only five and were on a 7-0 run. But a house-crumbling transition dunk by Brandon Triche got the Carrier Dome faithful going again.
James Southerland was cleared to rejoin the team before the game against St. John's after missing six games for academic reasons. He hit consecutive threes to squash the Red Storm's run and finished with 13 points.
Syracuse regained control of the game and brought its lead back up to 14 with four minutes to play. They didn't look back.
As a team, the Orange shot 29-54 (53.7%) from the field and made ten three-pointers. St. John's, whose shot selection was far improved after halftime, shot 23-55 (41.8%).
Harrison finished with 13 points on an inefficient 4-13 shooting, and looked frustrated at times. Phil Greene IV added 10 points for the Red Storm.
The Johnnies will look to regroup before an equally-tough game at Louisville on Thursday night.