All high-level players understand that they must begin and end games strongly or there will be heavy consequences. There are no plays to be taken off, let alone a 20-minute half.
"In the league, same old story, you got to sustain for two halves to give yourself a chance to win and it doesn't even guarantee that you're going to win," said St. John's head coach Steve Lavin. "But to be competitive in this league you have to put together two halves."
The St. John's that has New York City hopeful for an NCAA tournament run seemed to be disappointingly absent for a deciding first half on Saturday when the squad faced longtime BIG EAST rival Georgetown.
As a result, the Red Storm (9-5, 0-2) were railroaded by the Hoyas (10-3, 2-0) on the road at the Verizon Center in Washington D.C. as the Johnnies fell victim to Georgetown in the teams' 100th meeting in both programs' history and lost their second-consecutive conference matchup, 77-60.
The game momentum was set early as the Hoyas enforced a near-flawless 1-2-2 fullcourt zone press on St. John's that frustrated its offense and led to many empty possessions and turnovers. With so many offensive opportunities garnered through its defense, as well as its performance on the boards, Georgetown went on a quick and dirty surge that left the Johnnies floundering.
"We guarded, we defended," said Georgetown head coach John Thompson III. "Every basket that they got was a tough shot, and then we got most of the rebounds. In the second half, we got careless offensively, which led to baskets from them, which got them their momentum."
Behind the impressive effort of 6-foot-3, 218-pound sophomore guard D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera, the Hoyas gained an advantage of as much as 33 points, 57-24 by the 13:55 mark of the second half.
Smith-Rivera, who came into the game second in scoring and averaging 15.9 points a game, finished with a season-high 31 points on 9-of-12 from the field, including a red-hot 6-of-7 from 3-point range. He also tacked on six rebounds and three assists.
"I think it was more that my teammates were just finding me in the areas where I was open," said Smith-Rivera. "For the most part I wasn't expecting to be that open...."
With major contributions from senior guard Markel Starks, Georgetown was never threatened by St. John's, holding a substantial advantage for the entire matchup. The Red Storm were only able to cut the deficit down to 15 points, 75-60, with 24 seconds left to play.
Starks recorded 12 points, five rebounds and four assists.
After shooting nearly 63 percent from the field in the first half, Georgetown shot 56.1 (23-of-41) overall, including a damaging 69.2 percent (9-of-13) from beyond the arc. The Hoyas, exploiting the Red Storm's desire to slow down the clock and break Georgetown's momentum, got to the line 16 more times than the Johnnies and drained 61.1 percent (22-of-36) of their opportunities.
The Red Storm were led in scoring by sophomore swingman Max Hooper, who finished with 13 points on 4-of-5 from 3-point range. The only other player in double-figures was junior swingman Sir'Dominic Pointer, who added 11 points, three blocks and three steals.
Hooper, Pointer and teammate junior guard Phil Greene (seven points) were responsible for the Red Storm's better shooting second half (56.7 percent). But, though the squad improved from the first stanza, the collective performance was not enough to set off the flurry of runs the Johnnies needed to get back into the game.
Because of that lack of firepower to fully recover and get the job done, it is unclear as to whether the Johnnies were able to improve their performance because they tightened up or as a result of the Hoyas lifting the intensity of their damaging press.
The Georgetown defense shut down St. John's leading scorer junior guard D'Angelo Harrison. Harrison, who played 29 minutes, was never able to establish a rhythm to his individual game and secured only four points on 1-of-12 from the field.
Despite a noticeable effort, St. John's appeared misguided on plays, slow-moving and disjointed in the first half, leaving players scrambling for an answer to the Hoya press and outside threat Smith-Rivera.
"The empty possessions and the turnovers cost us," said Lavin. "Some were against the press, soft passes, loopy passes, some where we just fell down and lost the ball and then a rushed or hurried shot, where we didn't finish at the rim and you put that all together and you get a double-digit deficit and then they hit some big shots, some three pointers."
St. John's trailed Georgetown, 42-16, at halftime.
The Red Storm began the matchup with a starting lineup shakeup, which included usual player off the bench Pointer, recently activated sophomore guard Felix Balamou and, most surprisingly, walk-on junior forward Khadim Ndiaye. Despite substituting in their regular producers, the Storm did not collectively establish a beneficial rhythm, break the stranglehold the Hoyas had on the momentum or execute well on either end of the floor.
Despite St. John's poor first half shooting 21.4 percent (6-of-28) from the field, the Red Storm netted 39.7 percent (23-of-58) overall as a result of a better offensive performance in the second half. The Johnnies converted on just 10 of their 20 chances at the stripe.
St. John's will return home and prepare for its next regular conference foe, Villanova. The matchup with the Wildcats is set for 1 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 11, at Madison Square Garden.
"Now we're 0-2, similar to Georgetown last year [which] started last year 0-2 before coming to the Garden and turning their season around with a win at the Garden," said Lavin. "So now we're 0-2 going back home and we got to get ready for Villanova."