NEW YORK, NY – St. John’s proved they are very much still a work in progress with a 63-56 win over St. Francis Brooklyn Sunday afternoon in the first game of the Holiday Festival doubleheader which marked head coach Chris Mullin’s return to Madison Square Garden.
The Red Storm pulled out a victory over their local rival – if you can call it a rivalry when one team wins 84% of the time – but it wasn’t easy. If not for a 19-0 first-half run, St. John’s may have likely seen this particular meeting end up in that other 16%.
Things were looking bleak early as St. John’s fell behind the Terriers 23-14 well into the first half. However, Yankuba Sima – who finished with a career-high 17 points despite dislocating the pinky on his right hand in the first half – sparked the Red Storm rally with a put-back dunk. St. John’s proceeded to rattle off 17 more points before St. Francis’ Yunus Hopkinson ended the half with a jumper.
“At the time it happened, it was really painful,” Sima said of dislocating his finger. “When they put it back in, it was way better. I felt I could play the second half, and I think I played better in the second half.”
Leading the charge for St. John’s was Durand Johnson, who knocked down 10 of the Red Storm’s 19 points during that rally including a pair of 3-pointers.
“We just decided we needed to come out a little harder,” Johnson said of the turnaround which led to the 19-0 run. “Sometimes we gets lackadaisical on the defensive end, and we’ve got to change that.”
Johnson ended the game with 17 points including a vital jumper in the final minute as the shot clock expired after the Terriers closed the gap to two.
“I caught the ball and I was in scoring range, but I saw the clock was going down,” Johnson said of his last-minute jumper. “I just took that shot with a lot of confidence and it went in.”
The Red Storm were able to ice the game from the line in the final seconds and in the process bump that 84% up just a little bit.
St. John’s showed they still have a lot to work on, but their young team holds great potential. In addition to Sima’s tremendous performance which resulted in his first career double-double (10 rebounds), other freshmen continue to show promise.
They didn’t fill up the stat sheet Sunday, but Federico Mussini and Kassoum Yakwe provided efforts that help coach and fan confidence in them moving forward. Mussini entered Sunday as the highest scoring freshman in the Big East with 15.6 ppg. He added six points and six assist against just one turnover against St. Francis. Inside the paint, Yakwe came up with a pair of big second-half blocks in just his second career game.
“We’re probably asking a little too much of him at times,” Mullin said of Mussini. “He, just like everyone else, will benefit from all these games they’re going through, When we have a full complement and get more experience, I think you’ll really see them flourish.”
St. Francis led by as many as nine in the first half and it seemed as though they would have a good chance to pull the upset before St John’s closed the first half on that 19-2 run. Tyreek Jewell led the Terriers’ early charge, but managed just two points over the final 28 minutes of the game, finishing with nine points on the afternoon.
“It’s college; everybody makes runs,” St. Francis’ Chris Hooper said. “We made our run, they made their run, it’s just how you deal with it. They punched, we punched back, you’ve got to battle.
Freshman Keon Williams showed an ability to hit the deep ball, shooting 2-for-3 from downtown after starting his career 0-for-8 from 3-point range. He finished with seven points, but it was the duo of Hopkinson and Antonio Jenifer leading St. Francis with 10 points apiece.
“They’ve got a lot of young guys over there developing” St. Francis coach Glenn Braica said of St. John’s. “I think they’re going to be good, but when you have that many freshmen it’s hard.”
St. John’s escaped with the win, but they still have a long way to go in order to become a Big East contender, foremost reducing their pace of 15 turnovers per game. The pieces are starting to fit for Mullin & Co., but they still need to get them all out of the box.
Said Mullin of his young team: “Each and every time we go through a game it’s going to wind up being a valuable experience. Tonight it wasn’t a pretty game, but we’ll learn. It’s nice to win but there’s a lot of stuff we need to do better.”
Vincent Simone covers Quinnipiac, the MAAC, and Hofstra among others for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.