If there is a harder place for visiting teams to win in the country this year, the Connecticut men’s basketball team wants to know where. So does Duke.
The win this past Thursday improves the Johnnies’ record to 12-3 at home and brought them even with AP #9 ranked Connecticut at 6-5 in Big East play. St. John’s dispatched its second Top 10 team at Madison Square Garden in under two weeks in impressive fashion once again as it defeated fellow Big East rival Connecticut by a score of 89-72. Playing a team that had beaten it 9 straight times, the Red Storm have now sent UConn home losers in their past two meetings. That’s really the story of how this season turned out for first year coach Steve Lavin, who is trying to take his team to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002.
This season has become one about senior leadership and finding a new identity. After Coach Jarvis left the job in 2003, the program has been through the occasional up but mostly seasons filled with downs, adversity, and disappointment. They had their NIT championship vacated for infractions, and ever since it has been a steep uphill battle, one that more than a couple coaches succumbed to. But Steve Lavin has this mature team on the right path, finally, and maybe the future (or at least the immediate one) looks brighter than some expected it would. The seniors on this team are doing everything they can to right a ship that has consistently been filling up with water for the past eight years, and they showed their spirit and determination again this Thursday when they led St. John’s to a huge conference victory over Connecticut in front of an electric home crowd of 13,652.
Just 11 days after he scored 26 in a 15-point trouncing of #3 Duke, senior Dwight Hardy was back in front, leading the Red Storm to victory again as he poured in a career-high 33 points, including 5-8 from 3-point range and going a perfect 8-8 at the charity stripe. He was joined in the scoring by fellow senior standout D.J. Kennedy, who contributed a double-double with 20 points, 11 rebounds, and 5 assists. The big nights from Kennedy and Hardy made it alright for only one other St. John’s player to score in double figures (Paris Horne, who finished with 12).
However, while St. John’s was putting on a spectacular display of shooting (48.4% from the field, 9-17 from 3, 20-22 from the free throw line), perhaps the more impressive feat was the defensive tenacity they showed, especially in harassing the tandem in Connecticut’s backcourt that averages almost 35 points a game.
Connecticut’s starting backcourt of Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb, the team’s leading and third leading scorers respectively, were hounded into shooting a paltry 9-32 from the field and 4-8 from the line, combining for just 28 points. This was nothing new recently for the struggling Walker, who despite averaging 23.2 PPG on the season has not eclipsed the 20-point mark since a 24 point game against Villanova on the 17th of January. He has barely shot over 30% since that game (32-105, 30.5%), while his team has dropped 3 of its last 6, including all three losses in-conference.
Connecticut had a chance to regain some control late in the first half as Roscoe Smith, who finished with a team-high 16, scored 5 during a 10-point run by the Huskies where they took their second and final lead of the game before St. John’s rattled off two late 3-pointers to close the half. The first came from Hardy and the other was made by Malik Boothe (who finished with 9 points) as time expired. The buzzer-beater was argued over by UConn coach Jim Calhoun, who was given a technical that proved to be a critical momentum shifter in the game for St. John’s. Including the two late 3′s from the first half, St. John’s got to begin the 2nd half with two technical free throws, both of which were made by Dwight Hardy, and then they were given possession. D.J. Kennedy made a layup to push the lead to 8. The next three Connecticut possessions were fruitless and resulted in the Red Storm once again stretching their lead to double figures, going up 43-31 on a D.J. Kennedy dunk before UConn finally broke the scoreless streak with an Alex Oriakhi three-point play – 3 of his 12 for the game. UConn could never recover, however, and a few minutes later Dwight Hardy led a big run by scoring 12 straight points as St. John’s extended its lead to 18 points at 60-42 with 12:55 left in the game.
Connecticut scoring was rounded out by Shabazz Napier (8), Niels Giffey (5), and Jamal Coombs-McDaniel (3), while St. John’s got its remaining contributions on the offensive end from Sean Evans (7), Justin Brownlee (5), Dwayne Polee Jr. (2), and Justin Burrell (1).
St. John’s turned the ball over 10 times to 8 from UConn, but out-rebounded the Huskies by a count of 41-31. Assists were also 21-16 in favor of the home team. St. John’s converted on 20-22 from the free-throw line, 9-17 from beyond the arc, and 30-62 from the field, while Connecticut struggled in shooting 13-22 from the line, 11-27 from 3, and 24-65 from the field.
St. John’s continues Big East action at Cincinnati (ESPN3) this Sunday at noon, then faces Marquette (ESPNU) away next Tuesday at 9PM ET before returning home to play #4 Pittsburgh (ESPN/ESPN3) at Madison Square Garden on Saturday, February 19th at 12PM ET.
See game highlights at ESPN.
About the Author
Written by Nick Blanchard
I am a huge sports fan, as well as a lifetime athlete in a multitude of different athletic ventures. I used to do a little bit of everything but now the only one I participate in regularly is post-college lacrosse. I'm an English major, finishing up my undergraduate education in Upstate NY, and after that I'm hoping to get into sports writing as a career.