What could have been a comfortable win ended up a learning experience for both the UConn Huskies and the Red Storm.
The Johnnies won 71-65 in Madison Square Garden, behind 18 points and 6 rebounds from Jakarr Sampson and by the skin of their teeth. It was a good win for a team that had to wonder how effective they would be without emerging guard Jamal Branch, recovering from an MCL sprain. The Red Storm improve to 7-4 in the Big East and 15-8 overall; the Huskies fall to 15-6, 5-4 in the conference.
The Johnnies opened up a 31-20 lead at the end of the first half, holding the Huskies to .62 points per possession (23% on threes and 24% on two-pointers) in front of a quiet crowd. But St. John's - despite a smooth nine points from replacement starter Marc-Antoine Bourgault (11 points on the night) - only shot 36% from beyond the arc and 32% inside the arc, and head coach Steve Lavin took a trio of first half timeouts to correct his team's efforts.
But Lavin took those timeouts to try and extend the lead... because that couldn't last. Christ the King (Queens) star Omar Calhoun paced the Huskies with 13, sharp in his return to New York. And his scoring kept the Huskies within striking distance going into the break.
Strike, they did in the second half, as St. John's endured a(nother) scoring drought as UConn made the game more physical. St. John's didn't back down from the challenge.
Jakarr Sampson - who fouled out of the game at the end, thanks in part to a flagrant foul earned when he and Enosch Wolf were getting physical with 12:44 left, explains. "I feel like we've been losing games because we haven't been physical. We decided to change it around for this game."
Sampson shoved Wolf in the open court after receiving a high elbow from Wolf in the paint. Both players shot 1/2 free throws after being issued fouls.
While the game was getting more chippy, the lead was also dwindling. Extended defense and traps at the halfcourt line from Kevin Ollie's squad helped cut into the Johnnies' advantage. The contributions of RJ Evans (2 points, 2 steals), the strength of Enosch Wolf (2 points, 5 rebounds), and a pair of threes by Shabazz Napier (14 points, 5 assists) - who was benched to start the game for a violation of team rules - brought the Huskies to single digits.
After a pair of free throws by Ryan Boatright (5 points, 5 assists) earned the Huskies their only lead of the night... and St. John's went back to work.
"We felt like we had to step up after we allowed them to take the lead from us," Jakarr Sampson said. "I'm sure the fans love [the tight game drama], but we don't like it that much."
Phil Greene IV (2/11, 10 points, 6 assists) hit his only two field goals in the game to slow UConn's run. The Johnnies forced a trio of questionable tries from beyond the arc, covering slashing lanes to keep UConn from driving. And D`Angelo Harrison hit his first and only three of the night to extend the lead to five.
"We didn't make shots," UConn coach Ollie said. "There was no lack of energy or being tired...we just didn't make plays when necessary."
From there, it was a free throw fest, with the Johnnies nailing eleven of twelve free throws to close out the game after Harrison earned the lead.
It wasn't pretty, and coach Lavin admits it. "At this stage of the year, you don't grade victories in the Big East...you're grateful, chalk it up as a 'W' and move forward."
The Johnnies did a fine job of keeping Boatright and Napier from collapsing defenses with their penetration, and earn a win they badly needed with road games at Syracuse (3:00 PM on Sunday) and Louisville to come in the next week. They may be ugly in person, but in retrospect, every "W" has beauty.
St. John's held the Huskies to 10/28 shooting inside the arc, 27%. UConn shot 36% outside of the arc.
D`Angelo Harrison was benched for about eight minutes in the second half after dribbling a ball off of his foot; the Huskies cut the lead to four points in that time.
Chris Obekpa's foul trouble - he fouled out with 5:10 left trying to block Wolf from behind - limited an offensive performance that saw the 28% free throw shooter hit 2/2 at the line, and, brimming with confidence, nail a 17-foot jump shot.
Hat tip on the quotes to Jaden.