St. John's couldn't afford a let-down performance against the lowly, one-win South Florida Bulls. So they didn't buy one.
The Red Storm (16-10, 8-6 Big East) handled South Florida (10-16, 1-13 Big East), 69-54, at Carnesecca Arena on Wednesday night. JaKarr Sampson led the way for the Johnnies with 20 points, while D`Angelo Harrison added 18 points and Sir`Dominic Pointer contributed 12 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists.
With the victory, St. John's kept its NCAA bubble hopes alive, while avoiding a low-RPI loss that would have unquestionably crushed them.
"We played together tonight. We had four guys in double figures," Harrison said afterwards. "It was an all-around team win."
St. John's came out firing, getting out to an 14-2 lead in the first three and a half minutes. Before the first media timeout, USF head coach Stan Heath had used two timeouts of his own.
With only one conference victory in 13 tries coming in, the Bulls did not seem focused from the start, settling for contested jump shots and looking lethargic.
The Johnnies' half court offense looked better than it has in recent games during the first half. Even without point guard Jamal Branch for a fourth consecutive games, the Red Storm assisted on nine of its first ten field goals.
D`Angelo Harrison's third three-pointer of the game put the Johnnies up 29-12 with 3:30 left in the first half. St. John's converted on 43% of its field goals (to USF's 26%) before halftime, when Lavin's squad took a commanding 33-17 lead into the locker room.
St. John's extended its advantage to 20 points (39-19) three minutes into the second half. But the Bulls counter-punched with a 13-3 run of their own to cut the deficit to just 12 points (44-32) with 10:44 remaining.
"They have some great players and stuck with it," Harrison mentioned. "[South Florida] is better than their record shows. Way better."
A fiery, clipboard-tossing timeout lecture from Steve Lavin sparked the Red Storm again. Seven consecutive points, a forced shot clock violation, and a drawn offensive foul later, the Johnnies brought its lead back up to 19 with seven minutes left.
Heath's USF team did not lay down, as they again cut the St. John's lead to 10 with 4:47 remaining. But an acrobatic Sir'Dom Pointer layup ended the Bulls' 9-0 run. They never looked back.
St. John's shot 45.3% from the field for the game, and finished with 19 assists on its 24 shots made.
"This game was a sign of growth," Sampson said. "We're learning how to close games."
Victor Rudd led the way for USF with 18 points - 13 in the second half - the lone bright spot in yet another disappointing performance from the fumbling Bulls. No other South Florida player scored in double figures.
"Tonight wasn't our night. We couldn't hit anything offensively," Stan Heath said. "We knew they were going to play zone. We certainly played a lot better in the second half and showed a lot of fight in the last 10 minutes of the game, but we couldn't put the 40 minutes together."
Marc-Antoine Bourgault contributed 10 points to the Storm's winning effort, including two conversions from long range. Phil Greene IV ended with just three points after coming up empty (0-7) from the field.
At halftime, St. John's appropriately honored a large number of former players, coaches, managers, and trainers. Lou Carnesecca addressed the capacity crowd at Carnesecca Arena, alluding to the program's great tradition and heritage.
Wednesday's game was the first St. John's sell out (5,602 attendance) at a home game since last season's conference-opening victory over Providence.
"There were a number of positives in this one, but the biggest one is just to win," Steve Lavin mentioned after the game. "At this stage, each game has a greater significance."
St. John's will take three days off before an important match-up with the Pittsburgh Panthers at Madison Square Garden on Sunday afternoon.