St. John’s was led by Durand Johnson, who poured in 18 points for his eighth double-figure scoring effort in the past ten games.
St. John’s (7-10, 0-4) played short-handed as starting center Yankuba Sima was sidelined due to injury. Fellow freshman Kassoum Yakwe stepped up in Sima’s absence and nearly recorded a double-double with nine points and a career-high 11 rebounds. The 6-foot-7 forward swatted six shots in his first-career start.
“Overall, we kept a good pace,” said head coach Chris Mullin. “We lost Sima last game so this is the first game we really went small. I thought they did a good job using their size to wear us down a bit.”
The Red Storm buried 7-of-11 3-point attempts in the first half to take a 39-31 lead into the locker room, hitting ten straight points to go up 37-27 with 1:22 left before intermission. Malik Ellison got the Red Storm going with five-straight points, including a jumper that broke a tie at 27 and sparked the run.
Mvouika finished with 13 points and Mussini had 10 to round out the three St. John’s players in double-figures. The Red Storm sank 11 three-pointers in the contest and shot 45.2 percent from the field.
Rally falls short against Xavier
St. John’s came close to upsetting nationally ranked Xavier last week at Carnesecca Arena, but fell short of completing the comeback. The Red Storm lost 74-66 to the Musketeers.
Despite trailing by as much as 15 points in the first half, St. John’s, led by freshman guard Federico Mussini, came roaring back in the second half. Mussini nailed a three-pointer to pull the Red Storm within one in the final two minutes.
But after referees called a shooting foul on Durand Johnson, Mussini slammed the ball in frustration, prompting the refs to call a technical foul on the freshman.
“I was upset with myself,” Mussini said after the game. “I didn’t think about it. I just threw the ball. I’m upset at myself because without it, we probably would’ve won the game.”
The three-pointer capped off a 10-2 run for the Johnnies, but the momentum shifted after the technical foul call. Xavier scored seven of its last nine points on free throws, which put the game away.
Xavier guard Trevon Bluiett ended up with 18 points on 9-of-11 free throws. Myles Davis added 19 points, with a perfect 9-of-9 from the charity stripe.
After the game, head coach Chris Mullin declined to comment on the call. “I got no thoughts on that,” he said. “No thoughts whatsoever.”
Mussini finished with 19 points and four rebounds, including 5-of-8 from downtown, three of which came in the game’s closing minutes. Graduate guard Ron Mvouika added 19 points and five rebounds.
Despite the loss Mullin, in his first year as the Red Storm head coach, said there were positive takeaways from the game.
“We battled and competed, we didn’t give up,” he said. “I’m really proud of my guys tonight.”
Mullin was especially pleased with 15 offensive rebounds that led to 12 second-chance points.
“I thought they played well enough to win, not statistically, but as far as effort, energy and desire,” he added.
Mvouika said every loss hurts, but this one hurt a little more.
“It’s frustrating to lose right now, but we know we’re going to break through at some point,” he said. “I’m proud of my guys, proud of my team.”
St. John’s started the game ice cold, going 1-of-13 from the field. Xavier jumped out to an early 10-2 lead in the first four minutes. The Johnnies clawed back despite only shooting 27 percent in the first half, trailing by only seven points at the break.
In the second half, both teams traded baskets as St. John’s tried to cut the deficit. Xavier maintained a steady lead heading into the game’s final minutes before St. John’s launched its comeback rally.
After the technical foul was called and Xavier sunk its free throws, fans began to head for the exit.
“Ref, you blew it,” yelled one fan as he left his seat.
As the young Red Storm team heads deeper into conference play, Mullin said he’s seen vast improvement from his team.
“There has been tremendous improvement across the board,” he said. “I let these guys know how much they are improving. It’s been a lot, individually and as a team. We’re light years ahead of where we were a month ago.”
Xavier head coach Chris Mack said although St. John’s was an inexperienced team, they played hard.
“I thought early on, despite our lead, we weren’t playing very well,” he said. “Defensively, we gave up 12 offensive rebounds in the first half, several of which were in the first six minutes of the half. In the second half, give St. John’s credit for coming back. I thought we played poorly.”
Mack also said Mullin will have a stamp on the St. John’s program as a coach, as he did when he was a player for the Red Storm.
“I thought his kids battled,” he said. “He’s got some inexperienced players, a couple fifth-year transfers, some freshmen, some international players, and that’s difficult. He could have won the game, so I’m not going to sit up here and act like we have all of the answers because his team almost beat us.”
St. John’s was scheduled to return to action on Wednesday at Madison Square Garden, hosting Georgetown at 6:30 p.m.