Saturday, March 9, 2024

Johnnies On The Spot: St. John's Takes Regular Season Finale, On Brink Of Magic Number For March Madness


Chris Ledlum burying a three-pointer in front of the St. John's bench early in the second half. Photo by Jason Schott.

The St. John's Red Storm used a late surge to secure a win in the regular season finale against the Georgetown Hoyas, 86-78, at Madison Square Garden on Saturday afternoon, with the Big East Tournament on tap in a few days.

St. John's closes the regular season with five wins in a row, and they now have 19 victories on the season. This means they are one away from what is traditionally the magic number needed to make the NCAA Tournament in Head Coach Rick Pitino's first year at the helm.

"Well, I think we're playing terrific offensive basketball," Pitino said when asked about St. John's being on the doorstep of that magic number. "To finish 19-12, we're very proud of that. We put ourselves in the hunt to go to the Big Dance, and I don't think, as you all know, there's a tournament in all of basketball as good as the Big East Tournament. There's nothing like it. We don't have football, it's the best basketball in 'The World's Most Famous Arena.' I love it, I think the players are going to love it."

Georgetown Head Coach Ed Cooley said of St. John's, "The way they've been playing, this is their fifth win in a row, if I'm not mistaken. They're playing their best basketball coming down the stretch. I think Coach Pitino's done a great job allowing these guys, clearly want you to believe, we have several Tournament teams in the Big East, and clearly they are definitely are one of them." 

The Red Storm are 19-12, and they finish with a winning record of 11-9 in Big East play, their most wins in-conference since 2010-11, a memorable season when Steve Lavin was in his first season as head coach and they made March Madness.

St. John's finished in fifth place in the Big East, meaning they earned a first-round bye in the Big East Tournament. They will face No. 4 Seton Hall in the quarterfinals on Thursday at 2:30 p.m.

Georgetown, which finished their season with a record of 9-22 overall and 2-18 in Big East play, overcame a 10-0 deficit early to take a 22-21 lead on a Dontrez Styles fast-break three-pointer at the 8:09 mark of the first half.

St. John's did rally back to take a 39-35 lead into the intermission, powered by 13 points from Daniss Jenkins and Nahiem Alleyne had six points off the bench.

This remained a long, hard slog of a game well into the second half, as St. John's was clinging to a 61-60 lead with just 7:50 remaining.

A couple of minutes after that, RJ Luis Jr. hit a floater at the top of the key at the 5:23 mark to make it 67-62 St. John's. (pictured below)

RJ Luis Jr.'s floating jumper in the final minutes. Photo by Jason Schott.

Luis then got a steal and raced down for another basket, and his four points would be the start of a 9-2 run capped by a Chris Ledlum three-point play that made it 74-64 at 3:39.

Georgetown would pull within five, at 80-75, with 1:31 left, but Luis was Johnny on the spot again, as he buried a jumper at 1:17, and a pair of free throws that made it 84-75 with 45 seconds left. 

St. John's was led by Daniss Jenkins, who had 23 points on 7-11 from the field, 1-2 on three-pointers, 8-9 from the free throw line, with seven assists, and two rebounds, with the one down beat being seven turnovers.

RJ Luis Jr. finished with 16 points, 14 of which came in the second half, on 6-8 shooting (did not take a 3-point attempt, notable in today's basketball), including 4-6 on free throws, with three steals, two assists, and two rebounds. Chris Ledlum had 14 points (6-6 FG, 1-1 threes, 1-1 free throws), with four rebounds, an assist, and a steal. Joel Soriano just missed a double-double, as he finished with nine points (3-5 FG) and 10 rebounds, and Jordan Dingle also had nine points (2-8 FG, 5-5 free throws), with a rebound and a steal.

Georgetown was led by Jayden Epps, who had 23 points on 9-23 shooting, including 1-7 on threes and 4-4 on free throws, with six steals, five rebounds, and three assists. Off the bench, Kay Heath had 14 points (5-9 FG, 4-6 threes), and Drew Fielder had 12 points (4-5 FG, 2-2 threes), five rebounds, and two assists.

Drew Fielder slamming down this dunk off a missed basket that put Georgetown up 33-32 late first half. Photo by Jason Schott.

The scene at The Garden near the end of the game. Photo by Jason Schott.

PITINO POSTGAME: St. John's Head Coach Rick Pitino addressed the media after the game, and he opened with this statement: "I want to give a lot of credit to Georgetown because when you don't win any games it begins to wear on you...You always get the best of everybody because it's Madison Square Garden. Everyone wants to play here. RJ [Luis] doesn't like to have on his resume that he's a great defensive player but he saved us today. He saved us with offensive rebounds, saved us with scoring and saved us with great defense on [Jayden] Epps. I'm really proud of him, he has unlimited potential in almost every phase of the game and I'm really excited about the way he played today defensively. He is so long, he is a very cerebral basketball player and he played a lot of minutes. He must be exhausted. We're happy with this win and we give a lot of credit to Georgetown. In our two games with them they shot 50 percent from [behind] the 3-point line. The bank with no time left on the [shot] clock really hurt us, it killed our momentum. We needed a game like this. When you're headed into the Big East Tournament, you want to see a game like this to prepare you for it." 

On his decision to have RJ Luis guard Jayden Epps: "His length bothers people. Not only is he 6-foot-7 but he has a long wingspan. RJ has a lot to learn about defense off the ball, but on the ball he's very good. We weren't able to stop Epps and we felt we didn't have to blitz or trap, because they kept coming with the shooters on blitzes and traps. But RJ made things very difficult for [Epps] down the stretch."

On Daniss Jenkins: "[Daniss] is a great player. He is one of the premier guards in the country, an NBA talent. I can't say enough about him about how proud of him I am. He killed it at Iona and now he's killing it at St. John's. Wherever he goes he is going to kill it because he has the stuff to make it happen."

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