What began with yet another concerning start turned into a vintage "flip the switch" performance.
Trailing by nine midway through the first half after allowing Division II foe St. Thomas Aquinas a fair share of open looks they subsequently converted on, St. John's went to a five-guard lineup to play smaller, quicker, and ultimately; as judged by the Red Storm's 97-71 exhibition victory at Carnesecca Arena, more successful.
"We struggled early," head coach Steve Lavin admitted after the game, "but I thought the smaller group made a nice run with the pressure and the pace that we're able to play at."
Five Red Storm players ended the afternoon in double figures, paced by Phil Greene's 21 points and a 19-point, 10-rebound double-double from D'Angelo Harrison. Rysheed Jordan added 17 points, Sir'Dominic Pointer had 13, and making his St. John's debut after missing last Saturday's exhibition game against Humboldt State, Adonis De La Rosa added 10 points and five rebounds in 15 minutes off the bench.
"We got off to a slow start," Greene said for what seemed like the umpteenth time before the senior unleashed a flurry of three-pointers in the second half. "We've got to improve on that. Once they got me going, the rim was pretty big."
"Losing Keith (Thomas) really hurt," said Harrison with regard to the rebounding effort, "so we've got to step up. I had 10, Dom (Pointer) will have 12 one day."
Playing without junior forward Chris Obekpa, whose sprained ankle kept him out of St. John's final exhibition game before the Red Storm host NJIT to open the 2014-15 season, the Red Storm went on an 11-2 run after St. Thomas Aquinas struck first on a three-pointer by Marcus Henderson 43 seconds into the proceedings. The Spartans countered with a 19-4 spurt of their own to take a 24-15 lead, prompting a sense of déjà vu from a crowd of 3,490 before De La Rosa and Jordan gradually closed into the deficit, bringing St. John's within four with 6:30 to play in the first half. The two teams traded baskets for the next minute before Lavin went to the smaller lineup while trailing 30-24. The quicker unit proved its value early and often, with a 16-3 run punctuated by four Harrison free throws to give the Red Storm the lead for good after a Pointer jumper put the home team ahead 34-33. A 30-10 St. John's outburst highlighted by seven consecutive threes to open the second half put the game out of reach after the Red Storm took only a six-point advantage into the locker room. All told, Lavin's five guards, with Pointer serving as the de facto center, outscored their opponents to the tune of 73-41 once the head coach kept them in the game.
Matthew Lee led St. Thomas Aquinas with 20 points on 8-of-13 shooting, while Chaz Watler was the only other Spartan in double figures, amassing 18 points. The main story, however, was the athleticism and speed of the unconventional St. John's lineup.
"It all depends on matchups," Harrison said of when his team would play five guards. "If that group is doing well during the game, we'll stick with them." Added Lavin: "We like to play small, but this year, we also want to bring the depth of our front line along. This team has some balance. In terms of personnel, it's a diverse group. We have more flexibility at our disposal than I think we've ever had since I've been the head coach."