It's a long way to the NCAA Tournament after this, the Red Storm's second straight loss. St. John's scoring stars couldn't find the basket, and the Musketeers found points with cuts and smart passing late to pull out their best road win of the year, a 65-53 victory that likely secures their place in the NCAA Tournament.
St. John's struggled to figure out the Xavier defense once again, scoring 18 points in 34 second-half possessions. The Red Storm are not necessarily a miracle away from the NCAA, but they will need to win games in the Big East Tournament to make the selection committee think about adding the Johnnies to the field of 68.
"This is the first time since first Georgetown game that we were out of sync," St. John's coach Steve Lavin said. "It was sub par in the last couple of weeks we have had."
St. John's falls to 18-11, 8-8 in the Big East. The Johnnies have their last home game of the regular season against DePaul on Sunday afternoon, and a road trip to Marquette the following weekend. Xavier improves to 19-9 and 9-6 in the league. In possession of third place, Chris Mack's program faces Creighton next on Saturday, March 1.
At home, fighting a team battling for the same NCAA Tournament spot, St. John's fell flat, struggling to play cohesive basketball. It was not as aimless as some of the early games, but the final result was the same on offense.
The Johnnies took jump shots, struggled to get to the rim, and didn't convert when they got to the rim. The Xavier defense tracked back and kept the Red Storm from unleashing their devastating athleticism in transition.
"We are at our best getting stops and getting out in transition," St. John's coach Steve Lavin said. "We had zero fast break points... Xavier had a chance to set up D."
Xavier's defense was the story - hedging, recovering and defending the Red Storm until the shot clock ticked to those anxious last seconds on many possessions.
The Johnnies fought for much of the game. The score was a one-point lead at the half, with Xavier's big man Matt Stainbrook getting shots at the rim with efficiency. He and Jalen Reynolds shot 8/8 from the field for 17 points.
The Johnnies countered with bench contributions. New daddy Orlando Sanchez made the most of his night out in the half, scoring 11 with versatility - two points from the line, three points from beyond the arc and six from the field, with a nifty pass to Phil Greene IV (5 points) to boot. And the Johnnies harassed the Musketeers into nine turnovers to counter the 70% they shot inside the arc.
The second half was chilly for both teams; at one point, both squads were shooting 4/17 from the field in the half.
It was a game that needed a star, a hero. Some Garden magic.
Xavier found one in freshman Jalen Reynolds, who hit career highs in points (17) and rebounds (16), filling in gaps when Matt Stainbrook was saddled with foul trouble in the second stanza.
Helped by Reynolds, the Musketeers found focus. They ran patient, clock-killing plays to draw foul shots and layups. Xavier's last 17 points were off of layups, dunks, or free throws. In the last 7:19 (where the Musketeers were up 48-39), St. John's forced them to take only one shot attempt that wasn't at the rim or a free throw, a missed three-pointer.
"Jalen was the best player on the floor tonight," said Xavier coach Chris Mack.
"It's a good feeling," said Reynolds of the victory. "Now we have to put games behind us focus on what's next."
St. John's hero, D`Angelo Harrison, had one of his worst games as a collegian. Much like Georgetown, Xavier played off of the Red Storm and kept D`Angelo Harrison in a box. He struggled to find shots, going 1/11 from the field (0/5 from beyond the arc).
"He's fine, nights like these happen," said Phil Greene. "We just gotta get back in be gym."
And for bad measure, he banged knees at the end of the game. On the bench with a pack of ice, he watched the seconds tick away on the Red Storm's best chance to burnish their NCAA Tournament credentials. He hobbled through the postgame handshake line on his own.
Rysheed Jordan - whose hot start in the second half gave fans hope - finished with 11 points and three exciting steals. JaKarr Sampson led the team with 14 points. (He could have led with 17, but three of his makes were with a foot on the three point line.)
"We had a lot going on... but there is no excuse," Greene said. "It wasn't the same team as the streak."
Lavin added, "we weren't pleased with the resistance on our defense. That creates our offense. With a challenging week, D is something you bring."
St. John's finished shooting 2/16 from beyond the arc, with 14 turnovers (21% of their possessions) and 20/44 shooting inside the arc. The Johnnies allowed 51% shooting in the paint, thanks to strong defense early in the second half, but allowed the Musketeers to get many easy shots at the rim.