The UConn Huskies (15-6, 5-4) came into Madison Square Garden to face a St. John’s Red Storm (15-8, 7-4) team coming off their first loss in six games.
In that loss to Georgetown, the Red Storm lost guard Jamal Branch with a sprained MCL. Marc-Antoine Bourgault would get the start in place of Branch.
Bourgault made his presence felt early, hitting a three for the games first points. The teams had been a combined 0-9 shooting in the first 3 minutes prior to the Bourgault bucket.
Coach Steve Lavin would once again benefit from the presence of Bourgault, as he drained another shot from downtown a few minutes later. The Storm would have an 13-6 lead 7 minutes into the game.
Shabazz Napier, the leading scorer for UConn, was kept out of the starting lineup for disciplinary reasons. He joined the game at the 13 minute mark, being greeted by a Chris Obekpa block.
Despite the addition of Napier, the Huskies continued to struggle offensively. This allowed St. John’s to go on a 7-0 run, highlighted by Amir Garret’s second three of the season. The Storm would take a 20-7 lead with 9 to play in the half.
With 7 minutes to play the Huskies seemed to have a chance to make a run, but a huge block by Sir’Dom Pointer sent the Storm the other way. Pointer would have another highlight soon after as he tossed up an alley-oop pass to Christian Jones who would slam it home.
Omir Calhoun would hit two three pointers for UConn to give them a little momentum. With 4 minutes in the first the Storm advantage was cut to 28-17.
A minute later Calhoun would drain another bucket from downtown, but the name Lavin had called upon all game delivered once again as Bourgault matched it with a three of his own.
The Bourgault basket would be the last of the half, and after the first St. John’s led UConn 31-20. JaKarr Sampson led the Red Storm with 10 points while helping to hold the Huskies 8-33 from the field.
Shabazz Napier was finally able to get points on the board after being fouled by D’Angelo Harrison early in the second.. The rest of UConn was kept at bay however, and St. John’s maintained a 37-24 lead.
After the foul, Harrison was relegated to the bench. The Red Storm seemed to struggle without him and after an 8-0 run from the Huskies, the St. John’s lead was a minuscule 39-32 with 13 to go.
Sampson ended the run with a free throw but Napier soon after hit his third three of the game to get UConn back in action again. A once fifteen point lead for the Storm was now just four as the Huskies trailed 40-36 with 11 minutes of regulation remaining.
Despite the return of Harrison, the Huskies continued to attack and eventually knotted the score at 44 apiece. Chris Obekpa however would take things over offensively, hitting two free throws and a long jumper to give the Storm a 48-47 lead going into the games last 6 minutes.
Obekpa would foul out shortly after his offensive spurt, allowing UConn to tie things up once again. Ryan Boatright then gave the Huskies their first lead of the night as they led 53-51 with 4 minutes left.
“I’m a big believer that your best players have to learn how to play with three or four fouls. This was a significant game because of where we’re at in the season.” Coach Lavin said of his teams foul troubles. “I wanted our best unit on the floor to give us an opportunity to win.”
The Storm would not be broken easily though, and following a 9-0 run they were back on top at 60-53. Harrison hit his first three of the game during the streak, and he would finish with 11 points.
St. John’s would hold on to their late advantage, beating UConn by a final of 71-65. Sampson would finish with a team high 18 points while pulling down 6 rebounds.
“This is a learning experience for us, and we are going to try and not let these games get that close.” Sampson said of the close game. “I’m sure the fans love it, but we don’t like it that much.”
The Red Storm will now head to the Carrier Dome to face the 9 Syracuse Orange on February 10 for a matinee’ affair.