March 18, 2014
By Sean Brennan
Special to BIGEAST.com
NEW YORK - When St. John's took the court Tuesday night for its NIT first-round game, it was supposed to provide another opportunity for the Red Storm to put a happy face on the end of its season.
Win three games - all which would be played at cozy Carnesecca Arena - and make a run at an NIT title when the tournament shifted to Madison Square Garden in early April. Sounds simple enough, no?
Add in the fact that the Johnnies first-round opponent - eighth-seeded Robert Morris out of the Northeast Conference - came to play with just eight bodies due to suspensions of four players back in January and, well, it certainly looked to be easy pickings for a St. John's team that was motivated to turn its disappointment at missing the NCAA Tournament into a positive with some NIT championship hardware.
But on a night where St. John's had little luck on either end of the floor, they had the misfortune of running into Lucky Jones and Karvel Anderson. The Robert Morris duo combined for 15 3-pointers and 63 points to give the Colonials more than enough to spring the 89-78 upset on the Johnnies before a sparse crowd of 1,027 at Carnesecca Arena.
The news was decidedly better for the BIG EAST's other entry in the NIT as Georgetown rode the double-double performance of D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera, who logged a season-high 32 points with 10 rebounds, as the fourth-seeded Hoyas took down No. 5 West Virginia, 77-65.
The Hoyas (18-14) will now get a shot at Florida State, the top-seeded team in their bracket, in the second round. Markel Starks added 14 points for Georgetown and Jabril Trawick chipped in with 12 in the victory.
The Hoyas, who trailed 33-30 at the half, shot 52% in the second half with Smith-Rivera going 7-of-10 from the field. Georgetown bumped its lead into double digits for the first time on a Nate Lubick layup with 6:18 to play before a 3-pointer by Smith-Rivera, who scored 23 of his points in the second half, and a pair of free throws by Starks bumped the Hoyas lead to 66-51 and it was off to that second-round date with the Seminoles.
The game was played at Georgetown's McDonough Arena on campus because the circus was in town and occupying the Verizon Center, the Hoyas usual home.
"I just had fun," Starks said after the game. "I think the energy from the crowd transferred to us and I wanted to give it back just so they knew I was having fun too."
"The energy that we got from the fans - the students, the young alums, the old alums - it was great," said Georgetown head coach John Thompson III. "As I said to someone earlier, `I have seen a lot of games in here, and hopefully tonight's atmosphere will be like many of those old time games.' And it was. I want to thank our fans and I want to thank everyone for that because it helped."
But it was anything but a circus atmosphere for the Johnnies in Queens.
The Colonials (22-13) helped put the game away early as they bagged as many three-point shots (nine) as St. John's (20-13) had field goals in the first half. The Colonials opened the game on a 19-2 spurt, built leads as large as 25 points in the first half and cruised to a 49-27 halftime lead.
Robert Morris shot 58.6% (17-for-29) in the first half and 60% (9-of-15) from three-point land while the Johnnies shot just 30% from the field (9-for-30). It was the second straight season in which Robert Morris took down a brand-name opponent in the NIT first round after defeating Kentucky last March.
So did Robert Morris simply want this game more than the Johnnies? Anderson thought so.
"I guess you could say that," said Anderson, who scored a career-best 38 points. "A lot of teams that don't make the NCAA tournament, they come in with their heads down and kind of sad and they don't feel the NIT is worth their time. We feel different. This is another opportunity to showcase who we are and how tough our program is."
Max Hooper thought the hangover of not reaching the NCAA tournament was responsible for the Johnnies listless effort.
"I think there was some frustration about not making the NCAA tournament," said Hooper, who notched 18 points, all coming on three-pointers. "But before the game I felt a good energy, I felt a good vibe, I felt like we were going to come out strong. I felt like we could turn the page (that) we didn't make the NCAA tournament. I felt like we had a good resolve about it. But credit Robert Morris, they came out and made shots and executed their game plan. Once they got off to the hot start I saw a dip in our energy and ultimately the game was lost at that point already."
It was not the way the Johnnies were looking to close the book on the 2013-14 season.
"I felt like Robert Morris came out and beat us to the punch in every phase of the game," St. John's coach Steve Lavin said. "(Tuesday night) was disappointing because we didn't bring forth the effort or purposeful play that would have allowed us to be competitive. Our goal was to make the NCAA tournament (and) with a quick turnaround from Sunday to Tuesday we just didn't have the verve, purpose, the pluck or the energy necessary to win at this stage of the season."