NEW YORK (AP) — The 15-point lead St. John’s had early in the second half was almost gone and Connecticut, specifically Shabazz Napier, was starting to break out of a two-game shooting slump.
D’Angelo Harrison, the Big East’s second-leading scorer with an 18.9 average and the player St. John’s has relied on all season, was on the bench for almost all of the 15-1 run that got the Huskies back in the game.
Harrison, who has been playing with a very swollen ring finger on his shooting hand (right), was on the bench for almost 8 minutes at the start of the second half in what was teaching move for coach Steve Lavin.
“The thinking is sometimes when a player is going through a tough stretch you can help them by sitting on the bench,” Lavin said after the Red Storm beat Connecticut 71-65 on Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden. “He gets to see the game from a different prism or lens. It can be like smelling salts. It can snap a kid’s head back so he can see what’s needed at that point.”
Harrison had seven points in the Red Storm’s closing run from a 53-51 deficit with 4:30 to play.
He wasn’t buying too much of his coach was saying.
“Coach sat me out. It’s his call,” Harrison said. “I have no control on substitutions. I’m here to play. I came back and delivered and we won the game.
“I wasn’t making shots so I was a non-factor. JaKarr had another great game.”
JaKarr Sampson had 18 points to lead St. John’s to its sixth win in seven games.
“At this stage of the year you don’t grade victories in the Big East,” Lavin said. “Chalk it up. Move forward. Do the best you can to improve areas that have to be addressed and get ready for next game.”
The next two games for the Red Storm are at No. 9 Syracuse and at No. 11 Louisville.
“You have to protect home court and we did,” said Phil Greene, who had 10 points and six assists for the Red Storm. “It’s a tough task ahead and we’ll be ready for it.”
Marco Bourgault and D’ Angelo Harrison had 11 points each for the Red Storm (15-8, 7-4 Big East), who gave away all of a 15-point lead but recouped to hold on by going 11 of 12 from the free throw line over the final 2 1-2 minutes. Not bad for a team that entered the game 15th and last in the Big East at 63.2 percent.
“We shoot free throws before practice with the coaches and again after practice to simulate a game when we’re tired,” Sampson said. “I’ve seen an improvement.”
Omar Calhoun had 21 points for the Huskies (15-6, 5-4), who had won their last three games while Napier had 14 — all in the second half — and Deandre Daniels added 12. Niels Giffey had nine points and 10 rebounds.
“Omar made some shots that kept us in there in the first half,” Huskies coach Kevin Ollie said. “If he wasn’t shooting, it would have been out of reach. But he stayed aggressive and played hard. We need other players to have that passion in the first half.”
St. John’s took advantage of another poor shooting game by Connecticut to lead by as many as 15 points — the last time at 39-24 with 16:20 to play.
Napier, who did not start because he violated a team rule, was the key to the Huskies’ 15-1 run that got them within 40-39 midway through the second half. Napier, who entered the game about 7 1-2 minutes in, hit three 3-pointers in as many attempts during the run.
Connecticut took the lead for the first time on two free throws by Ryan Boatright that made it 53-51 with 4:30 to play.
St. John’s scored the next nine points to take control of the game and the brilliant performance from the free throw line sealed the win. The Red Storm finished 24 of 31 from the line (77.4 percent).
Connecticut was coming off a season-low 29.8 shooting effort in a 69-64 overtime win over South Florida.
This was the fourth straight game — and 12th this season — where Connecticut held its opponent to under 40 percent shooting. The Red Storm finished 21 for 55 (38.2 percent).
“We have to play with heart and energy. Play like you love the game. We weren’t shooting but still stayed in the game,” Ollie said. “We are holding teams under 40 percent from the field but we can’t expect to win shooting what we have the last two games.”
St. John’s played without point guard Jamal Branch who sprained an MCL in his knee in the loss to Georgetown. Branch, a transfer from Texas A&M, became eligible on Dec. 21 and is averaging 8.3 points over 10 games.
The Huskies shot 23.5 percent in the first half and the Red Storm took advantage to lead by as many as 14 points. Only Daniels (7) and Calhoun (13) scored in the first half for Connecticut as St. John’s took a 31-20 lead at halftime.
Neither team scored for the game’s first 3 minutes, when Marc-Antoine Bourgualt hit a 3 for the Red Storm. Connecticut finally scored a minute later.
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