After watching its 15-point lead evaporate and falling behind for the first time with just over a minute to play, the St. John’s men’s basketball team dug deep and came up with a winning effort against No. 16/17 Arizona to pick up its first ranked victory of the season, 70-67, on Saturday night at Chase Center in the Basketball Hall of Fame Al Attles Classic.
Arizona took its only lead of the game with just 1:23 to play, as Max Hazzard drained the team’s third 3-pointer of the night to put the Wildcats ahead, 67-66. With the Red Storm on a field goal drought of more than five minutes, Nick Rutherford drove and laid it in to quickly put the Johnnies back on top with just over a minute to go. The Red Storm then forced two misses from star freshman Nico Mannion before Greg Williams Jr. grabbed what would be the game-sealing rebound.
The Red Storm ends non-conference play with a record of 11-2, defeating an Arizona (10-3) team that had only lost to squads currently ranked inside the top 10 nationally in Gonzaga and Baylor. Mike Anderson’s 11 wins in non-conference play are a program record for a first-year head coach since the Johnnies joined the BIG EAST in 1979. Mike Jarvis won nine in 1998-99 while Steve Lavin won eight in 2010-11; both of those campaigns ended with an NCAA Tournament berth.
Coming into the game averaging 85.1 points per game on 49.9 percent shooting, the nation’s fifth highest scoring average and 14th best field goal percentage, Arizona was limited to 67 points on 39.6 percent shooting, including a 3-for-16 showing from three-point range. St. John’s recorded nine steals and 17 points off 13 Arizona turnovers.
LJ Figueroa cracked the 20-point plateau for the second time in his last three outings, scoring a team-high 21 points to go along with four rebounds and a game-high three steals.
Rasheem Dunn netted eight of his 14 points from the charity stripe, reaching double figures for the eighth time in 10 tries this season.
Playing without the services of Mustapha Heron, the team’s second leading scorer, for the second straight game, St. John’s received a stellar offensive contribution from Rutherford, who finished with eight points on 3-of-5 shooting to go along with five rebounds, three assists and a steal.
Averaging just 7.0 minutes per game entering Saturday night’s contest, Damien Sears put forth his best effort as a Johnnie, finishing with four points, six boards, an assist and a steal. Williams Jr. also played a key role despite not scoring, tallying six rebounds, two assists, two steals and a block.
Defense led to offense for St. John’s in the early going, as the Johnnies forced six turnovers and shot out to a 23-9 lead with just over eight minutes gone in the contest. Marcellus Earlington scored all seven of his points on the run while Dunn added the other three. Four of those 10 points came off turnovers while two more resulted from a Williams block. The Red Storm sank nine of its first 14 field goal attempts during that opening stretch.
Arizona battled back, trimming the deficit to seven on a pair of occasions before Figueroa drained a 3-pointer with five minutes to go, kicking off an 11-4 St. John’s run to close the half. Figueroa scored seven of those points, including a 15-foot underhanded runner off the glass to beat the buzzer and give St. John’s a 40-26 lead heading into the locker room. The Red Storm scored the final six points of the half.
Figueroa, who tallied seven of the team’s first nine points in the early going, finished the opening stanza with 16 points.
The Wildcats came out of the locker and made their first four field goals tries of the half, trimming the St. John’s lead to eight, 44-36, with a 10-2 run in the opening 3:12 of the second period.
The Red Storm promptly built its lead back to 15, as Dunn scored five points in the span of just 50 seconds, including an and-one off a steal from Rutherford. Rutherford then capped the 7-0 run with a bucket of his own, putting the Red Storm on top by a score of 51-36 with 13:22 to go. Defense played a key role in this run as well, as Arizona missed eight straight field goal tries.
Trailing 61-48 with eight minutes to play, Arizona unleashed a 13-4 run to pull within four, 63-59, with just under five minutes remaining. With most of their points coming from the charity stripe, Arizona continued to chip into the deficit before pulling ahead on Hazzard’s triple with 1:23 to go.
That long range bucket would be Arizona’s last of the evening; however, as St. John’s scored the final four points of the game to claim its 70-67 victory.
Another ranked foe awaits the Red Storm after a long break, as the Johnnies will open BIG EAST play against No. 17/16 Butler on Dec. 31 at 7:30 p.m. inside Carnesecca Arena. Tickets are available for just $20.20 at RedStormTix.com by using the promo code 2020.
St. John’s Head Coach Mike Anderson
“I can’t say enough about this guy to my left, LJ [Figueroa]. I thought he led the charge. Coming into an environment like this here, you never know how your kids are going to come out because of the inexperience, but I thought [Figueroa] came in and he led the charge and the guys just followed his lead. It was a good win for us. Again, I can’t say it enough, our guys played on both sides of the ball. Our bench continues to be a big cog in what we’re trying to do, and we’re getting better. I thought we got better night against a very, very good, outstanding Arizona team.”
On attacking the paint on offense…
“I thought the game was sped up and therefore as we created some turnovers or some quick shots, not letting them get comfortable. I thought we were able to push the ball down the floor and have mismatches. And so now we’re, we’re getting the basket, we’re getting attached to the basket. Without a doubt, we’re an attacking team. We’re not just going to be a jump shooting team, and that’s why I really emphasize what our guys, let’s keep attacking, keep attacking. And even in the second half, they blocked some shots but our guys kept the game plan firsthand and they did a good job.”
On how Arizona was able to get back into the game…
“I thought they got more aggressive than we did. I thought we got a little passive. We played some zone. They started getting some offensive rebounds and all of a sudden now you got guys in foul trouble. Josh Roberts, he was in and out of the game. Marcellus [Earlington], who was one of our more physical players, he ended up fouling out of the game. That’s basketball. It’s all about momentum and all we we’re trying to do was finish the game up.”
On where the leadership comes from on St. John’s…
“I think of the guys that have been through it, I mean, we got LJ [Figueroa] who was here last year. He’s a junior. Then you got Mustapha Heron, who was, you know, one of our leading scorers, and sitting there on the bench trying to encourage and lead our guys. I just think they’re listening, and you can see it. They’re going out and they’re doing the things we asked them to do each and every day in practice. So it’s all about believing in one another. I think the confidence is growing. They play with such great energy and they played unselfish. I was really impressed because we took care of the basketball today. We had 19 turnovers in our last game, and this game, against a very good team that got in lane with Arizona. I thought we did a really, really good job.”
“As a matter of fact, a telltale sign, we beat them on the boards. They’re one of the better rebounding teams in the country, so I thought we matched their physicality. I thought that was a big, big stat in the game.”
On LJ Figueroa…
“We needed him. He looked at me and Mustapha sitting with me so he got to get some buckets for us, and in fact, we talked about it today and he said, ‘I got you, coach,’ so I’m glad he got it.”
St. John’s Guard/Forward LJ Figueroa
On his aggressive mindset…
“I felt like my teammates put me in a great position to score the ball. We practice it every day, moving and cutting, screening away, you know, just learning how to play without the ball and I think that definitely helped me and my game. Just finding the little sweet spots on the court and just finding the soft spots and being the more experienced guy on the offensive and defensive side of the court.”
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