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St. John’s melts down in second half again, loses to UConn, 77-64

It’s Groundhog Day. Again.

Chris Hagan

Same as it ever was.

In all-too-familiar fashion, St. John’s crumbled apart in the second half despite holding a halftime lead, this time losing to the No. 1 UConn Huskies, 77-64.

It appeared from the onset that the Huskies would smother the Johnnies before the under-16 media timeout, sprinting to a 14-5 start thanks to sluggish transition defense and on-ball pressure knocking the Red Storm out of rhythm. Daniss Jenkins and the Johnnies countered as the Red Storm rallied an extended 22-8 run thanks to Jenkins’ 11 points on a perfect 4-of-4 from the field to give them their largest lead of the day at 27-22.

The Huskies responded and played the Red Storm tightly for the remainder of the first half, but St. John’s led UConn at the intermission for a second time this season — this time with a narrow 37-36 lead. St. John’s even pulled ahead out of the second half, taking a 46-45 lead with 13 minutes remaining after Chris Ledlum profited from a poor Donovan Clingan pass and dunked the ball on a breakaway.

But whenever it seemed St. John’s had UConn cornered, Cam Spencer responded with a basket. The grad transfer immediately made a three after the Ledlum dunk as part of a team-high 23-point performance, burying five threes while jawing with the hostile St. John’s student section that targeted him all day.

That Spencer three-pointer flipped the momentum in UConn’s favor completely. The Red Storm went 6-of-18 from the field and went 0-of-5 from three after that bucket, while UConn coasted and built their lead up to as many as 15 points. Spencer’s backcourt contemporaries, Tristen Newton and Stephon Castle, combined for 41 points. The Red Storm became rattled and gave up seven of their ten turnovers in the second stanza.

Besides Daniss Jenkins, who scored a team-high 19 points on 5-of-12 shooting and went 3-of-7 from deep, the Red Storm offense was hushed. In the second half, St. John’s shot 40 percent from the field and did not make a single three. Joel Soriano logged only six points and four rebounds while shooting 2-of-6 from the field and 2-of-5 from the free-throw line.

Before Saturday’s game, Rick Pitino said St. John’s needed to play perfectly to beat UConn, but the developments of this game proved that the Huskies weren’t invulnerable. They were missing third-leading scorer Alex Karaban, who suffered a sprained ankle in Wednesday night’s game against Providence; the Huskies’ big men duo of Samson Johnson and Donovan Clingan spent extended time on the bench after racking up nine combined fouls; the Red Storm had 21 attempts at the free throw line.

It didn’t matter. The flow of the game favored St. John’s; they had an amazing opportunity to close a juggernaut UConn team, but the Red Storm went comatose at the worst possible time yet again. UConn out-rebounded them, 38-23, and locked down the paint, despite opting for a small-ball lineup with Clingan and Johnson’s foul trouble. It’s a credit to UConn’s ability to overcome adversity, which St. John’s is still trying to figure out how to do.

Once holding a 12-4 record with a 4-1 conference mark, St. John’s looked like a shoe-in to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time in five years. Since then, they have spiraled back on the bubble, losing five of their last six games. On Tuesday night, the Red Storm are blessed with a “get right” game against DePaul; a great win could put them back on track, but an unthinkable loss to a team ranked 294th in KenPom would be too devastating to properly explain.