St. John's played with a purpose as it took on South Florida at Carnesecca Arena (Queens, N.Y.) on Wednesday.
With head coach Steve Lavin back on the sidelines, the Red Storm (16-10, 8-6 BIG EAST), which dream of a NCAA tournament berth, but are currently considered a team on the bubble, came into the matchup with heightened energy and control.
As a result, St. John's dominated the game for much of the contest en route to a 69-54 victory. A win over the Bulls (10-16, 1-13), which hold one of the worst records in conference standings, was not a question for the Johnnies in terms of building a resume suitable enough to earn a position among the nation's elite during the postseason.
"There were a number of positives, but the biggest one at this time of the season is just to win," said Lavin after the game. "There are a number of areas where we want to improve, and we have to continue to elevate our play as we getter deeper into the season."
USF attempted to stage a late comeback using its outside range, but could not get enough defensive stops on the Johnnies to get the job done. The Bulls broke down the deficit to only as low as nine points, 59-50, with 1:27 left in the matchup on back-to-back 3-pointers.
Although South Florida tried to use a strategy of quickly scoring and, then, fouling, it ultimately worked against them. The Bulls' leading scorer, junior forward Victor Rudd (team-high 18 points and 11 rebounds) fouled out and the Johnnies sealed the game at the stripe by cashing in on their opportunities down the stretch.
"Coach had a great pep talk with us after the game," said sophomore guard D'Angelo Harrison. "He expects a lot from us, so he told us to clean up the stuff that we did wrong and just go on from there."
St. John's freshman forward JaKarr Sampson displayed that he was back in full effect after being offensively limited in a loss to then-No. 12/12 Louisville last Thursday. This time, against USF, Sampson netted a game-high 20 points on 8-of-15 from the field to go along with seven rebounds.
"He played a really solid game and didn't rush things," said Lavin. "He learned from the Syracuse and Louisville games that if he slows down just a fraction of a second he sees things with more clarity."
Harrison continued his offensive grind with a 18-point, five-assist performance. The Red Storm also saw major contributions from sophomore swingman Sir'Dominic Pointer, who posted 12 points, 10 rebounds and six assists.
"Sir'Dominic returned to form tonight. When we won six out of seven, he was playing his best basketball of the season and, again, we get back into the win column with him playing a complete game," said Lavin. "It's that Costco kind of performance -- from every aisle he seems to pick something out and really excel."
Building off a rock solid, first-half momentum and advantage, St. John's held as much as a 22-point lead, 41-19, by the 15:49 mark of the second half following a tough offensive board by Pointer and a subsequent basket by Sampson assisted by Harrison.
The Johnnies led, 33-17, at halftime.
St. John's shared the ball very well, being very patient on possessions. The Red Storm's 19 assists created many of their 24 made shots. St. John's shot at a 45.3-percent clip (24-of-53) from the field, including 33.3 percent (6-of-18) from 3-point range.
"The 19 assists against eight turnovers was evidence that we were moving and sharing the ball rather than dribbling into crowds," said Lavin.
The Johnnies limited their fouls throughout the game. The opportunities they did receive to toe the line, the Bulls, which came into the matchup shooting 70 percent from the stripe, uncharacteristically drained only 25 percent (3-of-12) of them. Conversely, St. John's made 75 percent (15-of-20) of its own chances at the stripe.
The Red Storm played strong, controlled defense against USF, holding all but one of its players to single-digits. South Florida finished the contest shooting 36.8 percent (21-of-57), including 32.1 percent (9-of-28) from beyond the arc.
Bulls' senior guard Jawanza Poland finished with nine points and five boards, while teammate, sophomore guard Anthony Collins added eight points and five assists. USF's second leading scorer, senior forward Toarlyn Fitzpatrick, who came into the matchup averaging 10.4 points a contest, finished with five points and five rebounds.
"Now that it's the end of the season Coach Lavin expects a lot more out of us," said Sampson. "He expects us not to make the rookie mistakes."
St. John's returns to Madison Square Garden (New York, N.Y.) on Sunday, Feb. 24, for a noon tip-off against Pittsburgh.