Coming into last night's game, the St. John's Red Storm had not truly been tested. They played a weak schedule which even featured a D-II opponent (as part of the NIT Season-Tip Off scheduling).
However, against a heralded Minnesota team, St. John's had its first real test of the season last night and it passed with flying colors. The Red Storm defeated a talented Big Ten opponent, Minnesota, in the NIT semifinal 70-61.
The Red Storm face Gonzaga on Friday with a chance to defeat a ranked opponent in non-conference play and make progress in a long season towards an NCAA Tournament berth.
It did not look like progress in the beginning for St. John's.
The Red Storm came out in a zone defense and once they became comfortable, the Golden Gophers quickly took advantage. Minnesota moved the ball well and was able to find the open man on the perimeter. Led by Nate Mason's 13 first half points, Minnesota shot 46 percent from the floor and an astounding 54 percent from behind the arc.
The offensive side of the ball was not much better for St. John's. They shot a horrific 33 percent from the floor and failed to knock down a shot from behind the arc, similar to their struggles in this season's early games - and in other big games against big opponents.
Nobody on St. John's had the magic touch early on and they appeared lucky to only be down nine going into the half. "The first half we played like little kids. Missed some assignments," said Sir`Dominic Pointer after the game.
The second half was a completely different story for St. John's, as the team found the path to playing up to their potential.
The Red Storm switched to a man to man defense and began to put pressure on Minnesota. Sir'Dominic Pointer, who finished the night with eight points and 11 rebounds, led the charge and helped get St. John's back in the game.
With 12:35 remaining in the game, Pointer stole a bounce pass and posterized Minnesota center, Elliot Eliason, with a vicious slam.
However, early on in the second half, Minnesota refused to surrender their lead. They had an answer for every St. John's made shot.
Finally, with 3:33 left in the game, St. John's broke through like a veteran team.
D`Angelo Harrison, who struggled most of the night, knocked down two key free throws to give St. John's a 61-59 lead. The game really did not fall into St. John's favor until a little over a minute later. With 2:27 remaining, D'Angelo Harrison knocked down a clutch corner three and was fouled in the process.
"I saw the ball go in the basket and those kind of plays are St. John's basketball right there, a lot of energy," said Harrison, who finished the night with 19 points. "Brought a lot of energy to the game. Big play in the game,"
From that point on it was all St. John's. The Red Storm closed the game on a 17-2 run and overall, limited Minnesota to one field goal in the last seven minutes.
This is obviously a big win for a team looking to build their early season tournament resume.
However, after the game, Coach Steve Lavin stressed not getting too high on one win.
"We talk in the locker room about not getting too carried away with ourselves," Lavin said. "I'm a big believer that you can't be in the peaks or valleys emotionally, not just in basketball but in life. And that's easier said than done."
"But that really is the key," Lavin waxed on, "...staying on the path of progress, incrementally getting better, which this group has done throughout their career, I think tonight is another example of a breakthrough."
If the St. John's wants to continue their success, they must stay focused and continue to grow. It only gets tougher from here. Next up for St. John's is a Friday NIT Season Tip-Off final against Gonzaga, the 10th ranked team in the country.