Leading by seven with just over seven minutes to play, the St. John’s Men’s Basketball team could not hold off Connecticut, as the No. 24/23 Huskies rallied for a 63-60 win at Madison Square Garden on Sunday.
Following a Stef Smith 3-pointer to cap an 11-0 run and put the Red Storm up seven, 55-48, with 7:46 to go, St. John’s went without a point for the next 5:39, allowing UConn (17-7, 8-5 BIG EAST) to rattle off 11 unanswered of its own.
The Johnnies (13-11, 5-8 BIG EAST) narrowed their deficit to one following an Aaron Wheeler 3-pointer with 15 seconds to go, but two R.J. Cole free throws quickly made it a three-point game in favor of Connecticut. The Huskies elected not to foul up three on the final possession, but the Red Storm could not get off a clean look at the game-tying shot.
Montez Mathis scored a team-high 14 points on 5-of-6 shooting for the Red Storm. The senior guard also went 4-for-5 from the charity stripe.
Mathis led four Johnnies in double figures. The top scorer in the BIG EAST, Julian Champagnie tallied his fourth double-double of the year, scoring 13 points and grabbing 11 rebounds. Wheeler also finished with 13 points while Dylan Addae-Wusu stuffed the stat sheet with 12 points, seven rebounds, five assists and three steals.
St. John’s played its second consecutive game without the services of Posh Alexander, the team’s leader in assists and a top-10 scorer in the league.
The two teams traded blows to start the contest before a 6-0 UConn spurt gave the Huskies their largest lead of the game, 28-23, with 5:13 to go in the first half. The Johnnies used buckets from Addae-Wusu and Wheeler to quickly cut the UConn lead to one, the same deficit with which they would end the period.
St. John’s retook the lead, 32-30, on a Champagnie 3-pointer to start the second half before the team’s traded advantages five more times over the next five minutes.
The Huskies grabbed their largest lead of the half, 48-44, on a Jordan Hawkins trey with 11:05 to go before the Red Storm scored 11 straight over the next four minutes, giving the Johnnies a seven-point edge with just under eight minutes remaining.
Holding their largest lead of the afternoon, the Johnnies then went without a point for the next five and a half minutes, allowing UConn to rip off 11 straight and move back ahead by four, 59-55, with 2:18 to play.
Mathis finally stopped the bleeding with a layup, making it a two-point game with just over two minutes to go, but missed a free throw to complete the three-point play and bring the Johnnies within one.
Trailing by a pair, St. John’s came up with stops on back-to-back UConn possessions, but could not convert on the other end, as a Tyrese Martin bucket bumped the Huskies’ lead back to four, 61-57, with 21 seconds to play.
Wheeler drained a right-wing triple to pull the Johnnies back within one, 61-60, with 15 seconds to go, and the Red Storm appeared to come up with another critical stop before Mathis was whistled for a foul on Cole in front of the St. John’s bench. The graduate student calmly drained both his free throws before the Red Storm’s finally possession came up empty, sealing the 63-60 UConn win.
The Red Storm will return to action on Wednesday, traveling to Cincinnati for a 6:30 p.m. contest with No. 25 Xavier on CBS Sports Network.
St. John’s Head Coach Mike Anderson
“First of all, it was a defensive game. I thought UConn had a little grit there at the end. They were able to get some rebounds and made some free throws. We had opportunities to make plays and we just came up short again. It wasn’t because of the lack of effort. Sometimes it’s a lack of execution. I told our guys that this one falls on me. Maybe I didn’t have the right people out there at the right time or I didn’t use my timeouts properly, but we were in position. It’s another game in the BIG EAST. I thought free throws could be the difference in this game going down the stretch. [Connecticut] came up with some offensive rebounds and stick-backs and there you have the game. We always talk about how the little things add up, and today they just had a little more grit going down the stretch than we did.”
On the struggles around the rim…
“That’s a mystery to me. It’s something we work on every single day. It kind of befuddles me that guys aren’t finishing. We’re getting the opportunities, we’re just not finishing.”
On Montez Mathis’ performance…
“I thought he played aggressively. He was more assertive. You could see it even on the first play. He attacked the basket. I’m looking for emotion. In order to win in the BIG EAST, you have to have that kind of grit. In the second half, he was a big part of that run we made. He was attacking the basket, and he was finishing and getting to the free throw line. He responded the right way.”
On Dylan Addae-Wusu’s versatility…
“He’s a guy that fills a lot of holes. He had to do a whole lot, played a lot of minutes. He’s a glue guy and now he’s one of our featured ball-handlers. On one hand, it’s good that he can do that, but I think it takes away some of the other things that he can do for our basketball team.”
On getting over the hump in close games…
“We just have to keep putting ourselves in position and eventually make plays to get over the hump. That’s the biggest key. We put ourselves in position, but that doesn’t get it done. We have to make those plays. We have to make those layups, we have to get to the free throw line. If we’re not scoring, we’re not letting the opponent score. That’s the mindset. We’re right there. In this conference, all teams are good. It’s just [a matter of] can you do enough of the little things to find ways to win. That’s the thing we haven’t done consistently.”
Junior forward Julian Champagnie…
On falling on the wrong end of so many close games…
“As a player, it’s frustrating. We go out every night and give it our all. If a game is decided by one or two possessions or a free throw, it’s frustrating. At the same time, we have a game on Wednesday, onto the next one.”
On the team’s mindset with a road contest at No. 25 Xavier on Wedneseday …
“The mindset doesn’t change game-to-game. When we play anybody we have to go in there with a tough mindset and tell ourselves we have to do what we have to do. Our mind is on winning the basketball game and doing whatever we can to win the basketball game. I think that’s going to be the same thing going into Wednesday.”
On the team’s shot-making difficulties…
“The amount of lay-ups we miss a game is unacceptable. We have to get better, that plays a big part. We have to make shots. When we have open opportunities, we have to knock them down. We take a lot of contested shots every game. … We have to get better at it, that goes for myself and everybody else.”