NEW YORK — Creighton can point to a lot of reasons why it came out on the short end of Sunday’s Big East battle with St. John’s.
Missed free throws and off-target shooting from beyond the arc figured prominently in the 70-65 loss in front of 6,739 at Madison Square Garden. So, too, did the inability for two-time All-American Doug McDermott to get a shot in the final 8 minutes, 41 seconds.
McDermott graciously took the blame but his teammates knew that wasn’t necessarily the case.
“A little bit falls on him but most of it is on us,” guard Grant Gibbs said. “He was working hard, and you have to give St. John’s credit. Their length and athleticism makes things difficult.
“But we have to get him the ball. I can only think of a couple times in the last three years when it’s been game point and we didn’t get him the rock. We have a two-time All-American. We have to get him the rock, no matter what it takes.”
McDermott’s last basket in a 25-point night gave No. 12 Creighton a 59-57 lead with 8:41 remaining. The Bluejays scored six points down the stretch. In their final 14 possessions, they made 3 of 9 shots, missed 5 of 7 free throws and committed the last of their 11 turnovers.
Still, Creighton was clinging to a 63-62 lead when D’Angelo Harrison buried a 3-pointer with 2:08 remaining. Gibbs and Austin Chatman missed 3-pointers on Creighton’s next two possessions, and Harrison capped a 19-point performance with five free throws in the final 20 seconds.
“Harrison hit a big-time shot,” coach Greg McDermott said. “We’re up one with a little bit of momentum, and he catches it after one pass and shoots an NBA 3 and knocks it down. We have to tip our hat to them.”
If St. John’s didn’t knock it off first. The Red Storm relied on their physical skills to turn the game into a defensive battle. St. John’s allowed McDermott to score 39 and hit a game-winning 3-pointer when the teams met 13 days ago in Omaha.
McDermott still got his points, St. John’s forward JaKarr Sampson said, but the Red Storm wanted to make him earn each and every one of them while putting the clamps on Creighton’s other players, just as they did in the first meeting.
“The last game we took all of their other players out of the game,” said Sampson, who drew the main assignment on McDermott most of the night. “I knew today would be a defensive battle and that we needed to take him out.
“He still scored 25 points because he’s a good player but I felt like I did a good job of holding him to his average.”
St. John’s win was its sixth in seven games, with five of the victories coming in conference play after a 0-5 start. Sunday’s win left the Red Storm 15-9 and 5-6 in the league.
“I’m happy that this group continues to experience some success over the past few weeks,” said St. John’s coach Steve Lavin, who picked up his 200th career victory. “The hard work is paying dividends.
“We’re not satisfied and we’re not going to be complacent. We still haven’t accomplished anything of significance but we are playing better than we were a month or six weeks ago.”
That makes one wonder how much better the Red Storm will be in a month when the conference teams gather in the Garden for the league tournament. Doug McDermott, for one, wants a chance to see.
“St. John’s is a really good team,” he said. “They’re dangerous. They’re competing a lot harder than they were to start the year. We know there’s a chance we’ll see them again, and we just need to get back to Omaha and get back to work.”
Despite not taking a shot in almost the final nine minutes, McDermott put up 18 in 37 minutes of playing time. He made 10 but missed several in the first half that he normally converts.
“Sampson is long and athletic, and when they go to the bench they bring in someone else that is long and athletic,” Greg McDermott said. “But Doug missed some point-blank layups in the first half that their athleticism had nothing to do with.”
After a quick start, Creighton trailed by seven points late in the half before trimming its deficit to 40-36. The Bluejays used an 8-0 run to take a 47-46 lead when Chatman scored on a drive with 13:44 remaining. St. John’s tightened its defense, and neither team led by more than three until the final seconds.
Creighton might have been able to gain some separation in the game that had nine lead changes and 11 ties had it been able to shoot more accurately from 3-point range or the foul line.
CU made 5 of 22 attempts (22.7 percent) from beyond the arc and was 14 of 25 (56 percent) from the line. The Bluejays came into the game second in the league in free-throw percentage (.759) while leading the nation in 3-point percentage (.425).
“We’ve usually been good in that regard,” Greg McDermott said. “Obviously, some of the credit goes to St. John’s. Their length certainly impacts your ability to shoot the basketball and get clean looks at the basket.”
Gibbs added scoring support with 12 points, and the senior guard also grabbed a career-high 11 rebounds to go along with six assists. He did have five of the Bluejays’ 11 turnovers. Chatman finished with 10 points for Creighton, which dropped to 19-4 and lost its share of the Big East lead by slipping to 9-2 in the league.
In addition to continuing its run of hot play, St. John’s win was its first over a ranked team. Four of the Red Storm’s losses had come to teams in the RPI top 12.
“With this out the way I feel like we’re ready to take off now,” St. John’s guard Sir’Dominic Pointer said. “We’re finding our own little swag, our own little groove. We’ll be hard to beat if we keep playing like this.”
* * *
>> Video: See highlights from the game:
Video: Best of Gus Johnson and Bill Raftery from Creighton-St. John's
Video: Raftery interviews Steve Lavin, Jakarr Sampson