D'Angelo Harrison led No. 20 St. John's with 21 points as Red Storm came back from down 15 to defeat Saint Mary's 53-47. (Photo courtesy of the Associated Press)
By JOE PANTORNO
Down 15 at halftime, No. 20 St. John’s rallied back big-time, outscoring Saint Mary’s 35-14 in the second half to defeat the Gaels 53-47 on Friday night at Carnesecca Arena.
“In my coaching career, I would guess this was no better example of the phrase, ‘tale of two halves,’” head coach Steve Lavin said. “The numbers reflect that this was as dramatic of two halves that I could recall in my time here.”
Their 9-1 start is St. John’s best start under Lavin, and his personal best in 17 years.
“When you look at the schedule and you put W’s and L’s on it in the preseason, there were combinations of 9-1, 9-2, undefeated,” Lavin said. “We felt we let Gonzaga slip away…it’s an interesting thing.”
Senior guard D’Angelo Harrison, the Red Storm’s only consistent member of the evening, had 21 points as his side out-battled a Saint Mary’s team anchored by Brad Waldow, who continued his stellar senior season with 26 points and 11 rebounds.
“Our team’s always going to fight,” Harrison said. “Coach said we have to play, and that first half wasn’t St. John’s basketball. They scored 14 points in the second half. That was St. John’s basketball.”
Along with Harrison, Sir’Dominic Pointer, who came alive in the second half, helped seal an impressive come-from-behind win. Pointer, who helped ice the game at the line, scored all 11 of his points in the second half, adding gritty play and defensive fortitude to help spark St. John’s to the win.
St. John’s was settling for outside looks, relying on finesse to try and open up the Saint Mary’s defense. The problem was, their decision-making was subpar and their shots were not falling. Shooting almost 48 percent from the field in their last four games, St. John’s started just 2-for-15. Pointer summed it up St. John’s first half perfectly: “I don’t know.”
Saint Mary’s plan was simple: get the ball down low to Brad Waldow. The 6’10” forward, who is averaging a double-double a night, was getting started early, recording 11 of Saint Mary’s first 15 points as the Gaels opened up a nine-point first half lead thanks to a 14-1 run.
Trailing by as much as 10 with seven minutes left in the first half, St. John’s defense was trying to hold things together while the offense sputtered. Harrison had eight of the Red Storm’s first 10, but there was no supporting cast. While the NCAA’s second-leading active scorer went 3-of-6 in the first half, the rest of St. John’s shot just 1-for-14 from the field.
Harrison hit foul trouble, picking up his third foul with two and a half minutes left in the first half. While he sat, the offense recorded just five points, heading to the locker room down 33-18.
Waldow was simply unstoppable, netting 19 in the first half, mixing a powerful inside game with an impressive showing from the mid-range.
“I thought our players were too uptight and were caring too much,” Lavin said. “It sometimes creates anxiety…it’s paralysis from analysis. The only way to get through that is turning up the heat defensively and try to get a string of stops.”
Storming out of the gates to start the second half, St. John’s looked rejuvenated. The flat first half performance was exorcised, legs were moving, and the Red Storm began the half on a 7-0 run.
Pointer and Phil Greene IV recorded their first points in the early stages of the second half as the St. John’s offense finally started reverting to their usual play. Six-and a half-minutes into the final stanza, Saint Mary’s lead shrunk from 15 to four, as the St. John’s run peaked at 15-4.
The pace belonged to the home side, which slowed things down while the defense was active as the equalizer and soon, the lead, seemed inevitable.
“Double zero (Waldow) kept scoring. So we kept taking out the rim,” Harrison said. “It just changed the whole game. You hate to put yourself in that position, but the crowd was great today and the energy was there after every basket."
Waldow tried to regain his first half form as he proved to be the main wrench in St. John’s comeback plans, but a putback from Chris Obekpa tied things up at 41 with just under nine minutes to play. After a pair of offensive rebounds, Pointer, who became the Red Storm talisman of the second half, drew a foul, sinking both free throws to give St. John’s their first lead since it was 5-3.
What was already an unnaturally chippy game for a pair of out of conference opponents, St. John’s seizing of the lead was getting under Saint Mary’s skin as their play grew progressively erratic. A pesky defense began disrupting Waldow as the decibels at Carnesecca Arena continued to increase.
Obekpa, who added eight points and seven rebounds, picked up his fourth foul with seven minutes to play, but stayed out there as Lavin put Pointer in front of Waldow to provide defensive relief for St. John’s big man.
“I pride myself on defense,” Pointer said. “I’m smaller, I can jump, they’d have to lob it over to me and Obepka could block shots.”
It worked. Pointer disrupted entry play to the post, limiting Obekpa’s range, allowing him to block shots down low. Waldow recorded just seven points in the second half.
“They put a smaller guy on me…it was more difficult to catch the ball in the paint [because Pointer was] in front of me,” Waldow said.
Shutting down Waldow proved to shut down Saint Mary’s, as they could not find a way to pull back.
“It’s tough, we go through adversity all season. We have to work on being a tighter and tougher team,” Waldow said.
Saint Mary’s has now dropped three of their last four, and sits at 6-3 on the season.