The first official game of the Steve Lavin era did not go according to plan. The Red Storm ran into a speed bump on the West coast.
Stellar defense against St. John's primary scorer and a 22 point career high game from Clint Steindl would spell doom as the Johnnies went down swinging against St. Mary's, 76-71.
St. John's used their athleticism and remained in a zone defense against a St. Mary's squad that relied on perimeter shooting. The score was close throughout the first half as freshman Dwayne Polee (16 points, 4 rebs) put the Johnnies up 9-8 with 15:45 left.
A lapse in the Red Storm zone would free up Tim Williams (8 points, 7 rebs) for a wide open dunk as St. Mary's regained the lead briefly.
D.J. Kennedy (9 points) tried to be aggressive offensively but it resulted in freethrows as Steindl played him close. That and St. Mary's turnovers shifted the lead in St. John's favor but perimeter shots by Rob Jones (7 points, 5 rebs) and Steindl gave St. Mary's a 16-15 lead at the 12:33 mark.
Justin Brownlee (1 point, 4 rebs) picked up two early foul but Justin Burrell filled in nicely.
St. Mary's shot 4-11 from three-point range but strill managed to extend their lead to 3 points before Polee responded. With 9:15 left in the half, Kennedy once again took the lead 21-20 for the Red Storm with solid freethrow shooting.
Polee, who played solid in the first half, stretched the Johnnies lead with an explosive dunk in transition. A intentional foul by Burrell on Jones would end St. John's 6-0 run but their controlled chaos would keep the NY squad up 27-21 with 6:52 left in the half.
Lavin would pick-up a tech as Jones elbowed Kennedy during a fast break. St. Mary's defensive patience would then start to payoff, cutting their deficit to 1 point as Mitchell Young (5 points, 3 rebs) would go 1 for 2 after being fouled by Sean Evans (4 points, 2 rebs).
Malik Boothe (15 points, 3 assists)) would draw a foul with 53 seconds and after going 2 for 2 would cause St. Mary's to commit their 10th turnover of the half giving the Johnnies the last possession and a 31-28 lead going into the second half.
In the second half, St. Mary's head coach Randy Bennett sought to moved the ball quicker around the perimeter while the Johnnies continued with their match-up zone. Playing inside out, the California team soon tied the game at 31.
Early in the half, both teams struggled offensively but after shooting 5 of 11, Steindl drained a 3-ball to give St. Mary's a 34-31 advantage in a game that had already seen 10 lead changes.
The Red Storms shooting woes would continued until Hardy ended a 0-7 drought, finally scoring with 14:50 left to play.
Polee would cut St. Mary's lead to a point but with 13:43 left to play Boothe would go down and out temporarily with a cramp as he did similarly did during an exhibition game. Paris Horne (2 points) would then see his first minutes while Dwight Hardy (7 points) and Malik Stith shared point guard duties.
Steindl would begin to extend, St.Mary's lead scoring the 6th of his seven three pointers while holding Kennedy, the Red Storms leading scorer to only 1 field goal.
St. Mary's began to find holes in the Johnnies zone as Jones and Williams scored in the paint in what would end up developing into a 14-0 run.
Down 51-40 with 4:25 left in the game, Stith, who scored his 13 points in the second half, finally cut St. Mary's advantage to single digits as they switched to man-to-man defense.
Mickey McConnell (10 points), a veteran senior, who was having as bad a night as Kennedy, would score his first basket off a heave to beat the shot clock which seemed signal the beginning of the end for St. John's
With St. Mary's back ahead 57-47 with 2:40 remaining, the Johnnies tried to foul and counter but against a team that shoots 80% from the charity stripe, a comeback would be a tall order.
To the Red Storm's credit, they did not relent and fought tooth and nail until the end and with 14.6 seconds remaining had cut St. Mary's lead down to 5 points. Unfortunately time would eventually run out.