St. John's used only five players in the first half and added another for the second as the short-handed Red Storm defeated Fordham, 56-50, at the Holiday Festival at Madison Square Garden Saturday afternoon.
Steve Lavin missed his fifth game in a row while he recovers from prostate cancer surgery. The St. John's head coach was at a high school tournament in Florida where he is recruiting and texted to Associated Press after the win.
"Big W! For a number of reasons!" Lavin texted. "Our first Garden victory... payoff of the work put in in the past week...puts wind in the sails and bounce in the kid's steps... chance to go into Christmas on an uptick."
Speaking of wind, the St. John's (5-5) squad is lucky they didn't run out of it. It was the team's first game since Nurideen Lindsay transferred. Three academically-ineligible players leaves them with a six-man rotation. Malik Stith sat out the first half for an academics violation, but played the second half and contributed a key steal.
Freshman forward Moe Harkless had 13 points and 16 rebounds. It was his third straight double-double and it helped the Red Storm snap a three-game losing streak but not before the team huffed-and-puffed their way to victory.
"Once you get that second wind, I could keep playing for another 40 minutes, probably" joked Harkless.
Harkless was one of four Red Storm starters who did play the full 40 minutes.
Fordham (4-6) came back in the second half after St. John's appeared to take control by running off an 18-0 spurt that started in the first half and carried over to the second. The flurry of points gave them a comfortable 42-26 lead with 16:53 to play.
The Rams almost took a page from last year's comeback from a 21-point deficit to beat the Johnnies 84-81.
Fordham got to within three points, 53-50, with 1:56 to play and had a chance to tie the game after the Storm's D'Angelo Harrison blew a jumper. An 3-point air ball by the Rams' Bryan Smith sealed their fate after St. John's made 3-of-4 free-throws in the final 26 seconds.
St. John's assistant coach Mike Dunlap— who is filling in for the recuperating Lavin— knows his young team is going to need all the stamina it can muster until the rigorous Big East schedule starts and the three ineligible players can return to the roster.
"They had the momentum and they were making shots," said Dunlap. "In the first half we were fresher and able to transition and to get to their zone before they set it up, especially the last 2:30 of the first half."