Steve Lavin had been coaching a very young St. John's team a certain way for most of the season. It had been an approach of staying upbeat, making sure everything was a positive learning experience. He was treating a team full of 10 first- and second-year players like a team full of 10 first- and second-year players.
Things changed a bit Wednesday night in a 69-54 victory over South Florida.
"I wasn't pleased with stretches where we lost our focus and concentration," Lavin said of a second-half timeout he called when he could be heard over the home crowd, letting his team know he didn't like what he was seeing. "We lost the concentration we need to put good teams away. But we captured the focus and salted the win away. With our schedule stepping up we can't have those lapses or teams will go on runs and that will make less likely that we will do something special in March."
JaKarr Sampson scored 20 points and D'Angelo Harrison added 18 as St. John's handed the Bulls their ninth straight loss and 13th in their last 14 games.
Sir'Dominic Pointer added 12 points, 10 rebounds and six assists for the Red Storm (16-10, 8-6 Big East), who had lost two straight and three of four. The win moves St. John's into a tie for seventh in the conference.
It was the first game back for Lavin, who missed two games following the death of his father.
The players knew they heard a different Lavin than they had during the season.
"We never thought the lead was in jeopardy but we knew we had to close out the game," Harrison said of Lavin's more expressive message to the team during a 30-second timeout. "We had to finish the game and we did that. He was frustrated we stepped off the gas and I'd be frustrated too. He got on us and kept us in the game."
Sampson, one of the freshmen stepping up for the Red Storm this season, said it isn't often Lavin gets on them, but "when he does we have to step it up. We are almost at the end of the season and he should expect more out of us and not too make more rookie mistakes."
Victor Rudd had 18 points and 11 rebounds for the Bulls (10-16, 1-13), who have a record of 2-13 in the 2013 portion of this season.
St. John's opened both halves with impressive runs. The Red Storm started the game with a 14-2 run that featured two 3-pointers by Harrison and two three-point plays by Pointer. They led 33-17 at halftime as the Bulls shot 25.9 percent from the field (7 of 27), including going 2 of 14 from 3-point range.
The run to start the second half was a more modest 8-2 burst that was capped by Sampson's short jumper that gave St. John's its largest lead of the game, 41-19 with 15:49 to play. The Bulls did put together a 13-3 run that featured two 3s by Rudd and one by Javonte Hawkins to keep the second half interesting. The closest South Florida got was 59-50 with 1:25 remaining. The Bulls were 3 for 12 from the free throw line.
"Tonight wasn't our night," South Florida coach Stan Heath said. "We couldn't hit anything offensively. We were just shooting a lot of jump shots and just dug ourselves a hole. We just couldn't put together the 40 minutes. We certainly played a lot better in the second half and showed a lot of fight in the last 10 minutes of the game."
St. John's finished 6 of 18 from 3-point range, a good performance from the team that entered the day last in the 15-team conference by shooting 30.1 percent from beyond the arc. The Red Storm, who also were last in the league at free throw shooting at 64.4 percent, made 15 of 20 for the game.
"We played together. We had four guys in double figures. Jakar got rolling again and Dom almost had a triple-double," Harrison said. "It was an all-around great team win and the chemistry was good."
And that means Lavin has them on track for what he has been telling them all season.
"I have to let them know we have a chance to do something special," Lavin said. "Anything less than our best won't get it done."
The game was played in St. John's on-campus Carnesecca Arena. The sellout crowd of 5,602 was enticed by a bobblehead doll of Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame coach Lou Carnesecca and a halftime parade of former St. John's players and coaches. The brief ceremony concluded with remarks from Carnesecca that included a reference to "an octopus wearing roller skates" as a description of a young team.
The Red Storm, who also play home games at Madison Square Garden, have a 435-82 (84.2 percent) record at the 51-year-old building.
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