In a battle between two rebuilding programs in the first annual Gavitt Tip-Off Games, St. John's squeaked by Rutgers, 61-59, in a nail biter on Thursday night at Carnesecca Arena. It was a balanced attack for the Johnnies with Yankuba Sima, 13 points and nine boards, Ron Mvouika, 12 points, and Federico Mussini, 13 points, leading the way.
Felix Balamou, who was cleared hours before the game, played excellent and provided plenty of energy off the bench, recording eight points, seven assists and 11 rebounds. Christian Jones has had a solid start to his redshirt junior season and came on strong in the second half, scoring seven points. Durand Johnson struggled, scoring only five points on 2-of-9 shooting.
The Red Storm were without Malik Ellison, who appeared out of the tunnel with crutches and a boot, and Darien Williams (shoulder), who suffered an injury early in the first half.
Both teams struggled mightily in the first half but nine Red Storm turnovers and the refusal to throw the ball inside or to attack the basket, had the home team trailing by seven at the break. Chris Mullin's squad only shot 28 percent and failed to consistently make their three point attempts in the first frame while the Scarlet Knights shot 44 percent and burned the Johnnies in transition (10-0 in fast break points).
Mike Williams, 13 points, led Rutgers to a quick 7-0 run in the second half to break their lead open to 14 points but St. John's showed their toughness and grit, failing to back down. Despite trailing by 16, the Johnnies kick started a 15-5 run (that cut the lead to five) by attacking the rim, throwing the ball into Sima, Jones and Balamou in the post and locking up defensively.
With 1:18 remaining, St. John's took their first lead since early in the first half on a pair of Mvouika free throws. Rutgers had multiple chances to turn the battle back in their direction but they missed multiple free throws, Corey Sanders tripped with eight seconds remaining and they failed to get a shot off in their final possession.
St. John's continues to have turnover problems (although they had only three in the second half) but they shot an improved 37 percent in the second half and started to find their rhythm instead of settling for jumpers.
Bishop Daniels scored 21 points to lead Rutgers as the senior showed the ability to finish at the rim on the fast break and consistently hit mid-range shots. Newcomers Sanders and Deshawn Freeman added 12 combined points on 5-of-15 shooting.
This was the Red Storm's final game before they travel to Hawaii for the Maui Invitational. They will open up the tournament against 17th ranked Vanderbilt at 2:30 p.m. on Monday.