It was a grueling 40-minute game but St. John's couldn't pull it together to win its first BIG EAST contest at Carnesecca Arena in a month.
With the 59-50 loss to Seton Hall on Wednesday, the Johnnies' two-game winning streak was snapped and its record dropped to 4-9 in conference play (14-11, overall).
The cross-border rivals matched intensities early on, but St. John's fizzled down the stretch in front of 5,519 spectators. The Pirates (15-9, 6-7) made it difficult for the Johnnies throughout the game, turning up the defensive pressure at crucial times.
Seton Hall inflicted a damaging 2-3 zone on St. John's that paralyzed its offense, except when the Queens, N.Y. squad made points in transition.
"They played a 2-3 zone just like Notre Dame did. We shot it against Notre Dame and made shots," said STJ head coach Norm Roberts. "Today, we didn't make shots and then we got kind of stagnant holding the ball instead of getting it to the proper positions where we needed to on the floor."
As a result, the Johnnies allowed its early controlled run-and-gun style to turn into a helter-skelter momentum. For the rest of the contest, St. John's could not get a steady offensive flow going; shots just bounced off the rim, rimmed in and out or just caught air.
Also, at times, St. John's seemed out of character, taking itself out of rhythm by having a disconnect with the game and prematurely executing with ample time on the shot clock.
"These guys - they try so hard, they're trying so hard and they're trying hard to win," said a visibly emotional Roberts. "They want to win so bad and sometimes you almost can want something too bad. That's how bad they want it. And, tonight, we got tight and we just didn't make it happen."
Johnnies' leading scorer junior swingman D.J. Kennedy was held to only 1-of-10 shooting and two points in 32 minutes of play. He also had seven boards.
"The first shot went in but after that it felt like I wasn't there," said Kennedy. "Our team depends on me a lot. Tonight, they looked for me and I wasn't there for them. So, I'll take the loss. I'll take it.
"It's probably one of the worst games I ever had in my life."
The Pirates, who were without the services of its scoring leader, junior guard Jeremy Hazell (10 points) for much of the game, took hold of the reins and would not relinquish it. While Hazell nursed an injury to his hand that required stitches, Seton Hall's Jeff Robinson (16 points, nine rebounds) and Robert Mitchell (15 points) filled the void and used St. John's fumbles with the ball to its advantage.
Seton Hall used a few unanswered mini spurts to keep St. John's at bay by preserving a nagging eight-point hump in its opponent's way. The Pirates lost the rebounding game to the Johnnies (40-37), but converted its nine offensive boards into 17 points -- most coming at the initial onset of the Johnnies' meltdown in the first stanza.
Ultimately, a basket by guard Herb Pope (eight points, 11 rebounds) with 5:56 remaining in the second half put the Pirates up by as much as 14 points, 49-35.
St. John's attempted a late-game comeback in the final two minutes of regulation, chipping the deficit down to seven points, 55-48, on a 3-pointer by Paris Horne (12 points, seven rebounds) with 50 seconds remaining. But, the awry way the Johnnies approached the majority of the contest cost them a game they really wanted.
"It's a game we have to win, whether they're in the game or not," St. John's forward Justin Burrell said of losing the contest against Seton Hall without Hazell on the floor. "We really needed this game."
The Johnnies trailed the Pirates 28-22 at the half.
St. John's led by as much as six points in the first half with 18:20 on the clock, as the Johnnies sparked to a 6-0 lead with some great offensive set-ups and a nice transition game.
Sean Evans, who had a team-high 14 points, recorded 10 in the first half.
Asked how he will keep his team's morale high after losing a game like this to Seton Hall, Roberts said: "Be a man. Man up. That's life, move on. Nobody died, today. It's a basketball game, we move on and we see our mistakes and we get better from them. That's a lesson for everybody - just move on. "
St. John's will need to absorb the crushing blow to move on, as the squad hits the road to face USF on Feb. 20 at noon.