It wasn't the game the Red Storm wanted to close out the year.
In its last non-conference matchup before BIG EAST play, St. John's (8-4, 0-0) looked as if it would smoothly sail into a victory over UNC-Asheville on Friday night at Carnesecca Arena in Queens, N.Y.
Instead, the Bulldogs (5-7, 0-0 Big South) stunned the Storm with a dramatic comeback to win the contest, 72-65.
"It's a painful learning experience," said St. John's head coach Steve Lavin after the game, "but we'll take some things away from this game that will make us a better team."
Despite the Red Storm holding as much as a 12-point lead, 54-42, as late as the 12:10 mark of the second half, UNC-Asheville, behind the impressive effort of Jeremy Atkinson, tore through the Johnnies, overcoming its deficit and taking a lead with a 23-4 surge. In fact, it was a 10-0 run within the surge - sparked by back-to-back 3-pointers from Atkinson and capped with a dunk in transition by Keith Hornsby, that gave the Bulldogs a seven-point advantage, 65-58, with 4:33 left in the game.
A few clutch free throws by freshman forward JaKarr Sampson tied the matchup at 65, but a 3-pointer by the Bulldogs' Hornsby was the last dagger that finished off the Johnnies. UNC-Asheville went ahead by three points, 68-65, with 1:30 left to play.
With 1:03 remaining, St. John's sophomore guard D'Angelo Harrison - who, along with Sampson, was responsible for most of the Red Storm's offensive production throughout the matchup - attempted a last-minute 3-pointer, but missed the mark.
"We believe we'll be able to beat elite teams later in the season to make up for losses like this," said Harrison.
Atkinson netted a career and game-high 31 points on 9-of-17 shooting overall, including a 3-of-4 effort from beyond the arc, to go along with nine rebounds. He came into the matchup with the Red Storm posting a 20-percent field goal percentage from the perimeter. Atkinson also made his many opportunities at the stripe count, finishing with a near-perfect tally (10-of-11).
Atkinson was 'the fight' in the Bulldogs, as his second-half effort, alone, sustained UNC-Asheville and gave them reason to believe a 'W' was possible.
St. John's held as much as a 17-point lead, 38-21, in the game when Sampson connected on a jumper with 3:13 left before the break. Thanks, in part, to a solid, grind-em-out effort by Atkinson, UNC-Asheville went on a 9-2 run to close out the half - foreshadowing an imminent hot streak.
The Red Storm led, 40-30, at halftime.
In his debut as a Johnnie, point guard Jamal Branch made his presence felt early. The sophomore transfer from Texas A&M, who became eligible to play on Dec. 16 after sitting out a year as per NCAA regulations, gave Lavin the latitude to experiment with different lineups in the first half.
St. John's Harrison led his squad with 24 points on 9-of-16 from the field - his ninth 20-points-or-more game in 12 contests - while Sampson added 17 points and four blocks in the loss. Red Storm junior swingman Marco Bourgault chipped in eight points, while teammate freshman center Chris Obekpa posted eight rebounds and six blocks. The Bulldogs' Hornsby had 14 points and five assists. Teammate Will Weeks added 10 points and nine boards in the win.
St. John's shot at a 43.9 percent clip (25-of-57), while UNC-Asheville finished shooting 44.4 percent (28-of-63). The Bulldogs earned more scoring opportunities off the glass, as they outrebounded the Storm 40-30. Most notably, UNC-Asheville grabbed 14 more boards than the Johnnies in the second half, on which the Bulldogs capitalized from the inside out.
The Red Storm will be back in action on Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013, as it plays its BIG EAST opener on the road at Villanova. Tip-off is scheduled for 8 p.m.