It's not how you start, but rather how you finish.
That's the way it was for St. John's on Tuesday against Bucknell. After falling behind for most of the game's first 25 minutes, Steve Lavin's Johnnies stormed back valiantly to win, somehow with little doubt.
So, what changed? How was St. John's able to complete such a quick turnaround after trailing by as much as 9 points with just under 17 minutes to play?
Well, for starters, the difference in athleticism level between the Red Storm and the Bison of the Patriot League became much more evident late in the game. The energy advantage that Bucknell seemed to have over St. John's in the first half waned, as the Bison seemed physically drained once St. John's began its defining run.
But the shift in momentum that occurred in the final 15 minutes of the game can be attributed to much more than fatigue. St. John's had adjusted.
"We were resilient and were able to problem-solve in our zone to get stops and shutouts," Lavin said. "We finally leveled off all of their penetration, shut down their three-point shooting attack in the second half and kept them off the foul line."
The Red Storm had played exclusively in its man-to-man defensive scheme in the first half, which allowed Bucknell to find easy high-percentage looks and establish fluent cutting lanes. The coaching staff finally switched to its familiar match-up zone, which Lavin calls "quicksand."
All of the sudden, Bucknell's ball movement halted considerably making Dave Paulsen's Bison much more uncomfortable offensively than they were earlier in the game.
"Once we realized that 'heads up' aspect, it turned the game," Lavin said. "Let's face it: [Chris] Obekpa's seven blocks and our smothering of their three-point shooting are what led to their [diminished shooting efficiency]."
In fact, St. John's limited Bucknell to 39% shooting in the second half after allowing the Bison to explode for a 53% field goal percentage before halftime. The adjustments made defensively, particularly the added attention given to Cameron Ayers, made the difference.
"The defensive stops led to some run-outs offensively. Come the second half, we demonstrated patience and got some good looks, especially with a textbook possession late," Lavin continued.
The formula for St. John's success this season is quite simple. Getting stops on the defensive end allows the Red Storm to get out and run in transition. With the halfcourt attack and, especially, a three-point shooting attack often as weak as the Johnnies' are, easy transition points are valued at premium.
"Coach Lavin made a smart move switching us to the zone," Sir`Dominic Pointer said. "Our defense is ultimately going to win us more games than our offense will."
Pointer's right. But perhaps what he should have added was St. John's crucial need to adapt to the variety of conditions it will face throughout the season, especially during Big East play.
The most important component a head coach brings to the table is the ability to adjust in the middle of the game. That's what Lavin did on Tuesday, and will need to do going forward with his developing team.
St. John's will face MAAC and fellow tri-state area foe Monmouth at Carnesecca Arena on Friday night. Will St. John's require any mid-game adjustments? The predicted margin of victory (19.5 in favor of St. John's) may be large, but basketball always requires adjustments - especially given the Red Storm's recent history at its on-campus arena.