Trailing No. 11/10 Butler by as many as 23 in the second half, the St. John’s men’s basketball team put forth a tenacious comeback effort to reclaim the lead in the closing minutes. The Bulldogs, however, held the Johnnies scoreless over the final 3:08 and scored the game’s last seven points to escape Carnesecca Arena with a 60-58 victory.
St. John’s (11-3, 0-1 BIG EAST) outscored the Bulldogs (13-1, 1-0 BIG EAST), 39-11, during that crucial stretch before Butler closed the game on a 7-0 run.
Graduate student Nick Rutherford keyed the Red Storm’s comeback effort, finishing with 15 points, five assists and a career-high six steals. All but two of his points and one of his steals came in the second stanza.
Three other Johnnies finished in double figures, as Rasheem Dunn scored 12 points, Greg Williams Jr. tied a career-high with 11 and Marcellus Earlington chipped in 10.
St. John’s managed to nearly to pull off the upset despite playing without the services of the team’s second-leading scorer, Mustapha Heron, who missed his third straight game with a sprained right ankle. The team’s leading scorer, LJ Figueroa, was held scoreless for the first time in his St. John’s tenure after being limited to 13 minutes due to foul trouble.
Coming into the game, Butler ranked fifth in the nation in terms of turnovers, surrendering just 10.4 per contest on average. The Red Storm forced 24 miscues from the Bulldogs, 10 more than their previous season-high. 16 of those turnovers were the result of St. John’s steals, a season-best for the Red Storm in that category. In addition to Rutherford’s six thefts, Williams and Dunn picked up three apiece. The Johnnies also took tremendous care of the rock in their own end, recording just seven turnovers of their own.
The Red Storm struggled to score early against one of the nation’s top defenses, as the Bulldogs jumped out to an 11-4 lead with 13:24 to go in the opening half following a 9-0 run. The Red Storm then promptly rattled off six unanswered to pull within one, 11-10.
After the Johnnies knotted the game at 14 on a pair of Dunn free throws with 7:45 to go before the break, the Red Storm went cold. St. John’s missed 12 of its next 13 shot attempts while Butler converted on eight of its next 10 attempts, including five 3-pointers, to close the half on a 22-3 run.
The Red Storm’s 16 first-half points marked the team’s lowest total for a half since posting 15 in the opening stanza against the Bulldogs at Hinkle Fieldhouse on Jan. 27, 2018.
Trailing by 23, 42-19, after a Jordan Tucker 3-pointer with 18:08 to go, the Johnnies began to chip away at the deficit. After an initial 10-2 run to pull within 15, 44-29, with 15:12 to play, the Red Storm rattled off 19 unanswered, holding Butler without a point for more than nine minutes and pulling ahead by two, 48-46, with 6:49 to play. Earlington scored a team-high six points on the run, including a layup through contact to cap the tear and put the Johnnies on top.
Following a Kamar Baldwin trey to put Butler back ahead, the Red Storm rattled off six straight to take a five-point lead, 54-49, with just over four minutes remaining in the contest. Williams Jr. scored four points on the spurt.
Dunn scored the Red Storm’s final points on a layup with 3:08 to go before Butler, who entered the contest ranked fourth in the nation in scoring defense, held St. John’s off the board the rest of the way.
The Johnnies will begin a two-game road swing on Saturday, Jan. 5, when they take on Xavier at Cintas Center. Tip-off is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. on FOX and 970 AM WNYM.
St. John’s Head Coach Mike Anderson
“First, I told our guys that I’ve never been more proud of this team. … My guys left it on the floor. They fought and they never gave in.”
On if anything changed in the final three minutes of the game…
“No, they had guys who made plays. … I thought we did some things that hurt ourselves. We slowed the game down, so now all of the sudden they were able to get their second wind. They made some free throws and of course they rebounded the basketball. They got an offensive rebound and all of the sudden there was [Christian David] left wide open in the corner. … Obviously, there were some things that we could’ve done, but I thought they made the right plays at the right time.”
On the difference maker in the game…
“They made plays. We dug a hole, but we got back in it. I think that’s the most important thing. … We have to learn how to finish, but we were right there. [Butler is] a very good basketball team, very experienced. In the BIG EAST, when you have to these kind of games experience is going to be a factor, but I think our guys will learn. We always talk about enjoying it until midnight, well this is going to hurt until midnight because the games keep coming. That’s one that we gave away and now we have to go find a way to steal one on the road.”
On what changed for the team in the second half…
“I thought in the second half we came out with a different edge and it was led by Nick Rutherford. He was the one that spearheaded it and the other guys kind of followed his lead. We’re playing the no. 11 ranked team without [our second leading scorer Mustapha Heron] and not only that, our other leading scorer [LJ Figueroa] doesn’t score in the game. … I thought our guys just dug in the trenches and said ‘let’s ramp it up.’ We forced 24 turnovers and I thought that balanced out some of the rebounding. … We were in striking distance and we actually took the lead, but just couldn’t finish. To win in this league with this team we have to have all cylinders working together.”
On the fan support at Carnesecca Arena…
“Johnnie Nation, we appreciate everyone coming out and for all of your support. Carnesecca Arena was an electric atmosphere. You mean a lot to our basketball program. Let’s continue to show up!”
St. John’s Senior Guard Nick Rutherford
On losing tonight after a strong second half comeback…
“To be honest, you want to win, but you can’t be disappointed. We came out from halftime down 21 points and our backs against the wall. All you can do is fight and we fought the whole second half. [Butler is] a good team, so credit them for bringing home the W.”
On the disappointment from this type of ending…
“When you’re back is against the wall you can either sink or swim. We have a team full of fighters. Our coach is a fighter. The whole staff are fighters. We never thought that we were going to lose this game, to be honest with you. It sounds cliché but we expected to win, so that’s what we put on the court.”
On if the atmosphere at Carnesecca Arena tonight was what he envisioned when he committed to St. John’s…
“Absolutely. I had so much fun tonight. The fans, I mean, crazy energy, crazy energy in here. It was unbelievable. I just thank God I get this opportunity, because I’m having so much fun.”
St. John’s Sophomore Guard Greg Williams Jr.
On losing the game after a strong comeback…
“I feel that we had our backs against the wall and all we could do is just come back swinging. I feel like we did that. We were playing our brand of basketball. We just happened to come up short, but we’re going to bounce back and get ready for the next game.”
On playing Coach Mike Anderson’s “40 Minutes of Hell” style of play…
“We definitely feed off of it. We love it. It’s our brand of basketball. We work on it every day and we know what we do, so we just go out and do what we do.”
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