What an effort.
After trailing by as many as 19 points in the first half, St. John's had a strong second half push, before struggling to put the game away down the stretch, losing 62 to 61 to their arch rival Seton Hall Pirates at Madison Square Garden Sunday.
Kassoum Yakwe, 16 points and 15 rebounds, had a dominate performance while Felix Balamou scored nine points off the bench.
"Yakwe times it great. He uses his length," Pirates head coach Kevin Willard said. "He's great on pick-and-rolls. From when he got eligible to now, his progression has been tremendous. I thought he was the difference in the game, especially in the second half."
Durand Johnson and Ron Mvouika combined to put up 15 points, Sima added four points and three blocks and Malik Ellison continued his confident play, scoring six points.
The Red Storm had a one point lead with five seconds left but the officials made a questionable foul call on Mvouika that sent Isaiah Whitehead to the line. Whitehead nailed both free throws and the Johnnies failed to get a shot off to win it with two seconds remaining.
"I'd have to see it again but I thought Kassoum had the ball and he doesn't lose the ball by himself," Chris Mullin said following the tough loss. "But they have different angles and they are going to see what they see."
While the heart and non-stop effort is what got the Red Storm back in the game, Chris Mullin's squad had a sound performance on both ends despite the loss. They shot 44 percent from the field, out-rebounded the Pirates by five and held the Pirates to 37 percent shooting. The Red Storm dominated the painted area as they altered shots at the rim and played with physicality that has been absent for most of the year yet they showed their inexperience down the stretch.
The Johnnies shot 42 percent from the free throw line and that was the difference between winning and losing.
St. John's was sleep walking out of the gates as they let the Pirates build an 11-0 lead less than four minutes into the game and a 16-4 lead at the first media timeout. The Johnnies struggled to defend the perimeter, had no answer for Bronx native Desi Rodriguez, who scored 19 first half points on 7-of-8 shooting, and did not move the ball effectively on the offensive end (one assist the entire opening half).
Whitehead and Angel Delgado both picked up two fouls early in the game and combined for just two points, but the Red Storm could not counter and take advantage of Hall's two stars being on the bench. They turned the ball over nine times, were out-rebounded by nine, did not hit a three and let the Pirates shoot 52 percent from the floor. Rodriguez was consistently wide open from perimeter and the lack of transition defense that was evident in the first meeting between the two teams, showed up again in the first 20 minutes.
The home team trailed by as many as 19 points but a Johnson And-one with four seconds remaining cut Seton Hall's halftime lead down to 14 (36-22), giving the Johnnies a chance to make a push in the second frame.
Johnson took matters into his own hands at the start of the second half as he hit two big threes (one thanks to an incredible hustle play by Mvouika), sparking an 8-0 Red Storm run that cut the deficit down to six. And this was just the start of an entertaining, yet sloppy, second half.
The Pirates pushed the margin back up to 13 with 13:57 remaining but the Johnnies desire, fight and grit was on another level. They wanted this game more than the Pirates and it showed. Mvouika was all over the floor, Yakwe and Sima were protecting the rim with perfection and Mussini was moving the ball with purpose. Delgado fouled out with eight minutes left, the Pirates turned the ball over (15 total) and could not get anything going in the paint against the two shot blockers.
Yakwe had a critical offensive rebound that he finished with an And-1 to put the Johnnies up three with less than a minute remaining but the Johnnies had 21 turnovers and made bone headed mistakes in the final two minutes.
Kevin Willard received 36 combined points from Rodriguez and Khadeen Carrington while Delgado, who battled foul trouble for a majority of the game, finished with two points and six boards. Whitehead struggled mightily, finishing with just 10 points on 1-of-12 shooting.
There was a scuffle following the game that led to multiple Seton Hall teammates having to pull Derrick Gordon off the court.
"I didn't see it," Balamou said about the post-game incident. "It's a Big East rivalry. Everyone wants to win obviously. I guess it was a little shuffle but nothing special. It was a tough game."
The Red Storm (8-20, 1-14) will now travel to Chicago to face off against the Blue Demons, who they defeated 80-65 on Wednesday in order to snap their 16-game losing streak. Point guard Billy Garrett Jr. (lower leg injury) did not play in DePaul's most recent game against Marquette so he could be in question for Thursday.