Sunday, December 18, 2016

St. John's gives up 35-5 run to end first half in lopsided loss to Penn State

NEW YORK -- Badlands, you gotta live it every day
Let the broken hearts stand as the price you gotta pay
Keep pushing 'til it's understood, and these badlands start treating us good
- Bruce Springsteen, "Badlands"

Mama said there'd be days like this. What she didn't say was how many there would be.

And so it is on this final Sunday before Christmas that St. John's fans find themselves entrenched in that all-too-familiar rut, dropping to 5-7 on the year after a 92-76 loss to Penn State that saw the Red Storm surrender a 35-5 run to the inhabitants of Happy Valley in conclusion to a first half that still looked promising with 9:44 to play in the opening stanza, when the Red Storm led 24-17 at that juncture.

Then? Well, in the words of King Louis XV, "après moi, le déluge."

Veteran St. John's scribe and friend of the site Roger Rubin, now covering the Johnnies for Newsday following his exodus from the Daily News, passed along this nugget. Trust me, it's not for the weak of heart:

Bringing this full circle in reference to our musical introduction, St. John's and its long-suffering fan base have been talking about a dream since their Final Four run in 1985; and for the younger souls on the corner of Union and Utopia, the 1999 regional final appearance. They've been trying to make it real ever since.

Yet through the lowest of low points, and the 35-5 spurt is up there with that inexplicable loss to Delaware State, (we won't count the last-second loss to LIU Brooklyn because the Blackbirds could end up winning the Northeast Conference, but it really was a game St. John's really should have won) the Red Storm fought to make the final margin respectable. By then, though, the damage had already been inflicted.

In a game I called for WSJU Radio, Chris Mullin was pictured on the jumbotron with his head in his hands as his and my alma mater could only muster ten points in the first half of what became a 74-45 loss to Marquette in the second round of the 2009 Big East Tournament. Sadly, many people; both inside and outside Madison Square Garden had the same reaction when Penn State took a 52-29 lead into the locker room and bolstered that cushion to as many as 26 just a couple of minutes out of the blocks in the second half.

All is not yet lost, but it certainly does not look as bright as it did just ten days ago, when it appeared as though St. John's had turned the corner in a thrashing of Fordham. And as the Johnnies take the familiar drive up Interstate 81 en route to the Carrier Dome to meet Syracuse on Wednesday, we leave you with these observations in an attempt to make sense of what transpired in midtown Manhattan:

1) The inconsistency is still a mystery.
For a young team, the roller-coaster nature of a season can have its confounding stretches, but with St. John's having gone through this last year, it should be explained a little clearer. Not so on this day.

"Early on, we came out playing well and then we just had mental lapses," said a morose Tariq Owens, who did end up with a double-double at the final buzzer, tallying 11 points and 11 rebounds. "As a complete unit, we didn't bring it all as a team."

And could the Red Storm have seen a downer like this coming after having the entire week to rebound from the loss to LIU at Barclays Center?

"None of us did, obviously," Malik Ellison lamented after a game-high 22 points led all scorers, but were not enough to overcome five Penn State players in double figures. "I thought we had a pretty good week of practice. Everybody was ready, but like Tariq said before, we had a lack of energy at a certain point in the first half and we just dug ourselves in a huge hole."

2) This year could go into a downward spiral, and fast.
Wednesday's trip to Syracuse is the last remaining non-conference game for St. John's, who starts Big East play with a gauntlet of sorts, taking on Butler, Creighton, Xavier, Georgetown and Villanova all within its first six league games. Unless the Red Storm can piece together a couple of upsets, the prospect of getting to ten wins could become more a pipe dream than reality. While the fan base may think this season is yet another lost cause, nothing could be further from the truth in the locker room.

"It's a completely different team," said Ellison. "We have a lot of talent on this team, so I feel like it's just on us if we want to win or lose. Nothing's missing, we've just got to play with more energy. That's it."

The coach took a long-term approach to address the sentiment that the season might be getting away from his program.

"I'm going to look at it after the year," said Mullin. "I think we have plenty of games left, and I've seen enough good things from these guys that I'm optimistic. I'm not going to analyze at any certain point. We'll be competitive and we'll get our share of wins if we use this as a learning experience."

3) Losses like this only serve to justify the payoff at the end of the road.
At least that's what Mullin said when trying to assess the damage.

"I'll never make excuses, but this is part of the process," he said. "We've had some good showings, but maintaining it has been the problem. It's also one of those things where not only do you hate to lose and you're embarrassed, you also have to learn from this. People have experience from failing, and they use that as a learning tool."

"Take it for what it is, it's a bad loss," Mullin further intimated. "We gave them the ultimate confidence, and they had everything going."

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