It was after 17 seasons alongside Nolan Richardson in Arkansas that Mike Anderson finally got his chance to be a head coach in 2002 at UAB. After four years back in his hometown, the Birmingham. Ala. native moved on. He spent five years at Missouri, then eight years in charge at Arkansas.
Every season ended with the same distinction. For 17 straight years, Anderson never finished with a losing record.
Just one season at St. John’s could rip the streak to shreds.
With its five remaining regular-season games all coming against ranked teams, St. John’s dropped its best opportunity for a win anytime soon after giving up the game’s final eight points and falling to Xavier, 77-74, Monday night at Madison Square Garden.
With LJ Figueroa’s missed go-ahead opportunity near the free-throw line in the closing seconds — and Nick Rutherford’s blocked desperation 3-pointer before the buzzer — the Red Storm (14-12, 3-10 Big East) suffered their 11th straight loss to the Musketeers and have now lost four of their past five games.
Five days had passed since St. John’s snapped a three-game losing streak against Providence and momentum struggled to survive the layoff. The Red Storm’s first game at the Garden in more than two weeks began with eight straight missed shots and a 14-3 deficit. Rasheem Dunn opened 1 of 6 from the field. Josh Roberts and Marcellus Earlington combined to miss their first eight shots. Leading-scorer Figueroa went 1 of 7 in the first half.
As always with Anderson’s teams, defense sustained his team’s pulse. En route to forcing nine turnovers before halftime and holding Xavier without a point for nearly four minutes, St. John’s claimed a 19-17 lead. In the Red Storm’s second game since learning senior Mustapha Heron would likely miss the remainder of the season with an injured right ankle, Rutherford surprisingly broke out with his best game since transferring to Queens.
Rutherford, who entered Monday averaging 4.7 points, knocked down his first five shots and went to halftime with 14 points, besting each of his past 11 performances, while marking just his fourth double-digit scoring effort this season. Freshman Julian Champagnie’s 11 first-half points put the Red Storm in front on multiple occasions, but the Musketeers claimed a 39-37 edge on Paul Scruggs’ putback before the halftime buzzer.
Xavier (17-9, 6-7) took a 46-40 lead on the strength of Tyrique Jones’ (15 points, 15 rebounds) low-post efforts, but St. John’s clawed back behind Dunn’s never-ending aggressive drives into the paint. Though Rutherford had just two second-half points, his play at the point was nearly flawless, producing seven assists, no turnovers and five rebounds. When St. John’s took a 62-61 lead on Dunn’s fast-break layup to go in front for the first time in the second half, it was Rutherford’s steal and pass which set up the basket.
When the Red Storm stretched the lead to three with 9:06 remaining, it was Rutherford who passed up a shot in favor of a better one for Earlington. It would spark what became a 10-0 run and what became a 68-61 St. John’s lead, with Earlington (17 points) scoring eight straight points after scoring two points in the first half.
The Red Storm’s largest lead wouldn’t last long. Scruggs hit a pair of 3-pointers and Naji Marshall threw down a dunk, and St. John’s clung to a 70-69 lead with 3:39 to play. The margin remained the same when Xavier took possession with 40 seconds left. Though Marshall turned it over, Dunn (17 points) missed the front end of a one-and-one which allowed the Xavier junior to find redemption on an assist to Zach Freemantle with 10.4 seconds remaining.