"He's the WD-40 player. He helps in so many ways." -Steve Lavin on Sir'Dominic Pointer
When teams have NCAA Tournament aspirations and have to settle for an NIT appearance, the effort level can go one of two ways.
As St. John's came roaring back from a 12-point deficit at Saint Joseph's on-campus arena, it was evident that the Johnnies were playing for something real.
When Sir`Dominic Pointer's buzzer-beating fadeaway jumper hit the bottom of the net, it finally became real.
"This was purely a collective win, and I spoke with the team about that in the locker room," Steve Lavin said after the game. "To our kids' credit, they kept fighting and had just enough to get over the top. This was a big moment."
St. John's defeated Saint Joseph's of the Atlantic 10 in the NIT first round, 63-61, on Tuesday night after the Hawks led for much of the game. JaKarr Sampson led the Red Storm with 16 points, as Pointer added 15. But none were more important than his 14th and 15th as the clock expired.
After being down by as many as 12, St. John's found themselves with a four point lead with under a minute left. Yet St. Joe's had the ball down by just two.
After both teams traded a single free throw each, the Hawks had 9.7 seconds to execute an offensive possession. Naturally, there was former St. John's commit, Ronald Roberts Jr., getting fouled below the basket and making two from the line to even the score.
Then Pointer took the rebound and took it all the way down for the winning shot.
"I've never hit a shot like that in college," Pointer mentioned. "It just felt good and to celebrate it with my teammates felt even better."
Phil Greene IV and Chris Obekpa were both left out of the starting lineup, replaced by walk-on David Lipscomb and Christian Jones, for being late to a pregame meal. Greene entered the game after just two minutes.
Out of the gate, St. John's didn't seem willing to match the Hawks' intensity. St. Joe's got out to a quick 6-0 advantage while forcing the Johnnies into two turnovers in the first three possessions.
But after Obekpa returned, St. John's went on a 7-0 run and looked the best it had offensively in quite a while. Sir`Dominic Pointer drained two three-pointers as the Red Storm grabbed its first lead at 16-14. The hot shooting, as it had many times throughout the year, came to a screeching halt as St. John's then experienced a four minute scoring drought.
As they have at times all season, the Johnnies had difficulties guarding the perimeter. St. Joe's converted on five of its first six three-point attempts, capped by a Carl Jones triple that put the Hawks back on top.
By the 6:53 mark of the half, Jones and fellow guard Langston Galloway had each reached double figures. The Hawks took a 32-26 advantage into the locker room.
The struggles to locate shooters continued in the beginning of the second half for the Red Storm. A Carl Jones three gave the Hawks their largest lead, 40-28, just 1:40 after intermission.
Every time St. John's put together two or three baskets, Phil Martelli's St. Joe's squad seemed to have an answer. And when the opposition makes five more shots from behind the arc, it's always difficult to compete.
Yet the Johnnies continued to fight for their 2012-13 lives, cutting the Hawks' lead to just five (53-48) after a Greene floater with eight minutes left. Moments later, Pointer's third triple of the game cut the deficit to just three points.
A game that had seemed out of reach for a large portion of the second half was very much in reach after the Red Storm completed an 13-3 run.
It was St. John's defense that really brought them back, racking up many of the team's nine blocks down the stretch.
An Amir Garrett fast break lay-up with 3:07 remaining gave the Johnnies their first lead (57-56) since it was 16-15 in the first half.
Carl Jones led St. Joe's with 21 points, as Langston Galloway scored 16 for the Hawks. Former Johnnies commitment Ronald Roberts was also in double figures with ten.
After shooting 16% worse than the Hawks in the first half, St. John's ended the game shooting 45% from the field to the St. Joe's quickly declining 38%. St. Joe's grew incredibly cold as the game reached its most critical moments, allowing the Red Storm to make its come back and advance into the next round of the NIT.
"Us shooting 55% and holding them to 30% in the second half is impressive, in particular with a young group," Lavin continued. "We stayed with our man defense for 40 minutes. We didn't trap in the backcourt because it was leading to open threes."
There is no confirmation as to whether the Red Storm will walk out of Hagen Arena with its old "SJU" abbreviation, yet Steve Lavin and the Johnnies are likely happy enough to leave with a victory.
The Johnnies will meet the top-seeded Virginia Cavaliers, who beat Norfolk State on Tuesday night, in the next round. The date of that game is yet to be determined.
*Hat tip to Rumble contributor Jaden Daly for capturing Lavin's postgame comments.