The objective was to salvage the regular season finale. And St. John's came as close as you possibly can.
St. John's (16-14, 8-10 Big East) fell short against the #15 Marquette Golden Eagles, 69-67, in overtime on Saturday afternoon at Madison Square Garden. The short-handed Red Storm gave a valiant effort that got the Garden crowd going, but fell just short in its final game before next week's Big East Tournament as Vander Blue converted on a buzzer-beating lay-up.
With the loss, St. John's has dropped four consecutive games and finishes the Big East regular season with an 8-10 record.
The game seemed all but in hand as Marquette led by nine points with less than two minutes left in regulation, but St. John's turned up the defensive pressure in hope of completing a monumental comeback. A Jamal Branch fast-break lay-up tied the game at 63 with 22.1 seconds remaining.
Marquette turned the ball over in the final seconds of regulation, leading to a missed halfcourt heave that sent the game into overtime.
The game remained tied for the first three minutes of overtime until Chris Obekpa converted on a put back off an offensive rebound that gave St. John's a 67-65 lead with 1:49 remaining. Vander Blue hit a tough contested lay-up on the other end to equalize.
But Vander Blue's runner at the clock expired gave Marquette the hard-fought win and the league's regular season title. The shot gives St. John's bad memories of three years ago, when Marquette's Jimmy Butler converted on a buzzer beater to defeat the Johnnies in overtime at Carnesecca Arena.
"This was a thrilling Big East game. I'm proud of our valiant effort and naturally disappointed," Steve Lavin mentioned afterwards. "Our man-to-man defense got us back in the game, but no one in our locker room is satisfied with moral victories."
Blue led the Golden Eagles with 16 points, as Jamil Wilson added 14 and Davante Gardner scored ten points. Phil Greene IV led St. John's with 20 points and JaKarr Samson contrubuted 17 points in the loss.
It was evident early that Marquette's game plan was to attack St. John's inside by feeding 6-foot-11 Chris Otule. But St. John's kept things even offensively early on, making six of its first 11 shots.
With D`Angelo Harrison and Sir`Dominic Pointer out for Saturday's game, St. John's entered with a short-handed roster. Marc-Antoine Bourgault and Christian Jones each entered the game soon after the first media timeout, and combined for nine points in the first nine minutes. Steve Lavin even entered walk-on Khadim Ndiaye into the game during the first half.
The Red Storm seemed inspired to compete with the Golden Eagles. In the first half, St. John's was drawing offensive fouls, beating opponents to loose balls, and moving the ball fluidly. A 9-2 burst gave the Johnnies a 23-15 lead.
St. John's shot well over 45% for much of the half, but went into one of its patented droughts heading into halftime. Marquette finished the half on a 13-2 run of their own, and led 28-25 going into the intermission. The Red Storm made just one of its ten three-point attempts before halftime.
Marquette scored nine points in the first 1:54 of the second half, extending their lead to twelve points and forcing Lavin to call two immediate timeouts.
St. John's became sloppy and turned the ball over twice in four possessions, which led to two Golden Eagle fast break buckets.
But Christian Jones, a freshman forward who hadn't seen much time all season, kept St. John's within striking distance all by himself by scoring on three consecutive possessions. He finished with a career-high ten points.
"I've been fighting in practice to get my minutes back up," Jones said. "When I'm called upon, I've got to perform."
Jones' spark put momentum back on the Red Storm's side. A Jamal Branch highlight reel left-handed lay-up and a JaKarr Sampson tip-slam dunk cut the Johnnies' deficit to just three points with 11:57 left, and charged the Garden crowd.
After not going to the free throw line in the first half, St. John's missed five of its first six attempts from the charity stripe after halftime. They finished just 5-13 from the line. The Johnnies also struggled on the defensive boards, allowing Marquette a number of second opportunities.
As Marquette continued to push to extend its lead, Phil Greene gave the Red Storm a scoring boost. He scored 14 of his 20 points in the second half and overtime
But three-pointers from Jamil Wilson and Vander Blue brought the Golden Eagles' lead back to nine (60-51) with 3:45 remaining.
Then, chaos broke out as St. John's completed its major comeback that sent the game into the extra session.
Marco Bourgault scored eight points for the Johnnies, but shot just 2-11 from three-point range. As a team, St. John's shot just 2-16 from deep and 41% overall.
St. John's blocked 11 shots, including seven from Obekpa, the Big East's leading shot blocker.
The Red Storm has a single bye in the Big East Tournament, and will be either the 9- or 10-seed playing its first game on Wednesday.
"We are ready for a fresh start on Wednesday," Lavin said. "Everybody is 0-0 as conference tournament play begins."
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