Saturday, February 3, 2024

St. John's Stifled Late By The Champs


Tristen Newton dropping in a layup that put Connecticut up 20-19 at the 8:19 mark of the first half. Photo by Jason Schott.

The St. John's Red Storm gave the Connecticut Huskies a battle on Saturday afternoon at Madison Square Garden, but UConn put up 41 points in the second half on their way to a 77-64 win.

St. John's fell to 5-6 in Big East Conference play (13-9 overall), and this was the fifth loss in their last six games. They have now lost twice to Connecticut, the defending National Champion and No. 1 team in the country, who improved to 10-1 in Big East Conference play and 20-2 overall.

As would be expected with a noon tip, the game began with a series of streaks. After St. John's guard Daniss Jenkins got the scoring started with a three-pointer, on his way to 13 points in the opening frame, Connecticut responded with a 14-2 run.

St. John's followed with a 13-3 run to take an 18-17 lead eight minutes into the opening half, and that expanded into a 27-22 lead at the 6:02 mark when RJ Luis hit a pull-up jumper (pictured below). St. John's would take a 37-36 lead into the half.

Photo by Jason Schott.

The second half was a different story, as Connecticut took the lead, and though St. John's kept it within five points midway through it, UConn pulled away late.

Cam Spencer, who had 17 points in the second half, hit a jumper at 7:29 to make it 64-54, 49 seconds later, buried a three-pointer to make it 69-54, capping a 13-3 run that essentially sealed the game. (Pictured below)

Photo by Jason Schott.

Spencer led UConn with 23 points on 7-13 from the field, a superb 5-7 from behind the arc, with five rebounds, three assists, and three steals. Stephen Castle had 21 points (7-12 FG, 2-2 threes), three rebounds, and two assists. Tristen Newton had 18 points (4-11 FG) and 10 rebounds to give him a double-double, seven assists, and two steals.

St. John's was led by Daniss Jenkins, who had 19 points on 5-12 from the field, including 3-7 on three-pointers, with six assists and two rebounds. RJ Luis Jr. had 11 points (5-9 FT) off the bench, with five rebounds. Joel Soriano was held to six points (2-6 FG), with four rebounds and two assists.

PITINO POSTGAME: St. John's Head Coach Rick Pitino addressed the media after the game, and he opened with this statement: "It was a great crowd. A couple of key plays, turnover-wise, led to our demise. But they are better than us and those key plays, not only when we are down three or four, but when it goes to eight or 10, to a team that shoots free throws like this, you're going to lose the game. But, it's been the same problem all season; we're not a great shooting team and we're not a great defensive team. When a team shoots 49 percent form the field, almost 47 percent from three an they outrebound you by 15 (UConn's 38 to SJU's 23), you're not going to win many games. So, they're better than us. They have beaten us twice. I think Daniss [Jenkins] is playing at a high level - unfortunately, nobody else is, and that's one of the reasons why we are not playing great against great teams. So, we'll give them all the credit; it was a great performance by them at every phase of the game...

"I'm not overly disappointed; I'm really not because they were better than us. I was disappointed the other night with Xavier. We're trying to make three-point shots. We're not a great shooting team, and that's something you've got to be awesome. If you're not a great three-point shooting team, you've got to be a great defensive team, but we're not. So, we've got to keep getting better, keep improving."

On his concern level after St. John's has lost five of six games: "So, we are not a great basketball team. This is the Big East; I've been through it my first year with Providence, so it's going to take time. We have to get five or six Daniss Jenkins, guys that can do multiple things and play good defense, but they are going to continue to play hard, just have to play better. We have to improve as a basketball team defensively, improve with our offensive rebounding. We have to improve with not making turnovers at crucial times that make the lead go from three to six, six to eight, even though we didn't turn it over a whole lot."

On the confidence of his team: "I just told the guys 'they're Number One in the country, they're better than us.' It doesn't mean you can't beat the Number 15 team; you know, it's just, they're the Number One team in the country. We hope to get there someday, but they're better than us."

On what St. John's must change to put them on a definitive path to make the NCAA Tournament: "I think we come close a lot, like Creighton on the road, or Connecticut at Connecticut, Marquette, we come close against really good teams, but we turn the ball over. Like RJ (Luis), we all see is a very, very talented young man, made two crucial turnovers that killed us tonight, so you can't blame him, he's just learning the game. So, it's always been the turnover, or the loose ball, or the rebounding that has to get better, but without question, it's our defense. We're slow laterally, we're unathletic, and we're small - outside of that, we're pretty damn good!...We just need to get better, whether we are or are not remains to be seen with the way we've played against - one thing is, our schedule has been difficult and you can see, if you look at it and say, 'okay, St. John's is an average to good team, where are they going to take their lumps if you look at the schedule coming up.' you can sort of figure it out. Xavier wins 85 percent of their games, Connecticut's the Number 1-ranked team in the country, so if we can get on a little bit of a run, they'll get their confidence back, but we've go to get - He's (Daniss) playing like one of the top two, three point guards in the league - we've got to get the other guys to play at a high level, and we're not getting the high level right now."

On St. John's becoming rivals with UConn: "I don't think we're anywhere close to being a rival with them. I think as far as the crowd, very appreciative of the fans, they sold out Madison Square Garden, and maybe it could become a rivalry some day, but it's not now. Look, I lost my ego with the Celtics (whom he coached from 1997-2001), I realized I wasn't the great coach I thought I was. I call ego 'edging greatness out.' In a spiritual sense, I call it 'edging God out.' When you think you're better than somebody, you're not. Coaches have nothing - it's all about preparation. The players win and lose basketball games, the coaches are like jockeys. If they make the wrong move, you can lose a few, your horse and your team."

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