St. John's desperately needed a win in order to gain a winning posture after its two-game slump.
The Red Storm (6-3, 0-0 BIG EAST) rose to the occasion on Monday, as it edged Davidson 62-57 in the first round of the Madison Square Garden Holiday Festival.
Production was slow from both squads in the first half. The Wildcats (5-5, 1-1 SoCon) stayed true to form and made it an ugly game for St. John's. Davidson recorded an abundance of turnovers, while attempting to prevent the Johnnies from capitalizing on them. The Wildcats also committed and drew many fouls in the early goings, which prevented both teams from establishing a steady and fluid momentum.
St. John's could not get into a groove off of Davidson's many turnovers because the Wildcats got back on defense immediately following their errors. However, the Red Storm made sure to capitalize on its free throw opportunities.
In the second half, St. John's was led by D.J. Kennedy. Kennedy, who scored a team-high 17 points, scored off putbacks and made the weakside the strong side multiple times. The senior swingman put his leadership ability into play, giving the Red Storm a needed lift from the interior by grabbing nine rebounds to go along with his 7-of-9 shooting performance.
As a result, the Johnnies found a nice balance between aggressive defense and control, also seeing big contributions from forward Justin Burrell (five points, seven rebounds) on the defensive end.
Davidson's J.P. Kuhlman (six points, six turnovers) completed a rare four-point play to cut a St. John's five-point lead to only one point, 51-50. Red Storm guard Paris Horne (six points) answered with a jumper off the dribble at the 6:50 mark of the second stanza to give the Johnnies a 53-50 lead.
Big man Jake Cohen (14 points, eight rebounds), who was limited in the second half by early foul trouble, tried to make something happen on the offensive end for the Wildcats. Instead, while pump-faking to the basket, St. John's forward Justin Brownlee (11 points) got caught in the air and elbowed Cohen in the head. Not able to control the bleeding, Cohen had to sit on the sidelines and Brownlee was called for the intentional.
While Cohen was sitting on the bench being tended to, Davidson knotted the game at 55 on a 3-pointer by Brendan McKillop. McKillop, who nailed five threes in the nightcap, finished with 17 points.
Though Horne pulled away on a head-fake between two defenders, the Wildcats tied it up again - this time at 57 with about 5:40 on the clock.
As Davidson forward Clint Mann (12 points, six rebounds) picked up his fourth foul of the evening, sending Burrell to the line for two, Cohen was inserted back into the game. At the 5:04 mark of the second half, Burrell drained both and gave St. John's a two-point lead, 59-57.
That would be the last lead change of the battle.
Burrell would go on to continue his strong presence on the defensive end, grabbing three key rebounds over the next two minutes and drawing a charge to give Cohen his fourth foul of the game with 2:47 in the contest.
With the score frozen at 59-57, Davidson called a timeout with 1:12 left in regulation to set something up. However, out of the break, the Wildcats' Kuhlman missed a wide-open 3-pointer at the top of the key.
On the Red Storm's next possession, with less than 40 seconds remaining, guard Dwight Hardy (12 points) missed a shot and teammate Brownlee got the offensive rebound. Hardy, back on the ball, was fouled with 16.8 seconds on the clock, making only 1-of-2 and putting the Johnnies up by three points, 60-57.
St. John's called a 30-second timeout to talk over defensive strategy for Davidson's last possession of the game. Davidson opted for a McKillop 3-pointer, but the shot rimmed out and out of bounds with four seconds remaining in the game.
Two more at the charity stripe from Hardy and another turnover by Davidson would shorten the North Carolina team's stay in New York and send them home.
Davidson led 27-24 at halftime.
St. John's shot 46.7 percent (21-of-45) from the field and an improved 73.1 percent (19-of-26) from the line. The Johnnies committed an uncharacteristic 17 turnovers in the matchup. Meanwhile, St. John's limited Davidson to 34 percent shooting (16-of-47) from the field and forced 21 Wildcats turnovers.
St. John's will play Northwestern in the Championship round of the Madison Square Garden Holiday Festival on Tuesday at approximately 9:30 p.m.
The St. John's program has not won a Holiday Festival since it notched back-to-back titles in 2004 and 2005.