St. John’s defeats No. 15 Creighton for first ranked win of the Rick Pitino era

NEW YORK — It took more than three months, but St. John’s on Sunday delivered the first signature win of the Rick Pitino era.

It came in the form of a commanding 80-66 victory at Madison Square Garden over a surging No. 15 Creighton team that was only five days removed from a 19-point win against No. 1 UConn.

Daniss Jenkins, the Red Storm’s battle-tested point guard who followed Pitino from Iona last spring, turned in a pivotal performance in the must-win game, leading St. John’s with a season-high 27 points and six assists while running a clean offense that totaled only three turnovers.

Fifteen of Jenkins’ points came in the second half, including 11 in the final five minutes. He scored on four consecutive possessions down the stretch, including a 3-pointer with 3:43 remaining to put the Johnnies up 14 and serving as the dagger.

Afterward, Pitino hailed his team’s performance as its best of the season.

“We played both ends of the floor and we kept trying to push it, win the game and not be afraid to lose the game,” said Pitino, who wore a stark white Armani suit and matching shoes in support of the Red Storm’s annual white-out game.

“I’m really proud of the guys,” he said. “It was a great performance.”

The win marked the Red Storm’s first against a ranked opponent this season after entering the game 0-5. With the victory, St. John’s improved to 16-12 overall and 8-9 against the Big East.

Sunday’s statement win came exactly one week after St. John’s blew a 19-point lead in a back-breaking loss to Seton Hall, after which Pitino criticized his team’s athleticism and toughness while mentioning multiple players by name. That loss was the Red Storm’s eighth in 10 games, serving as a brutal blow to their NCAA tournament push.

Pitino’s eyebrow-raising comments commanded national scrutiny, prompting the 71-year-old coach to apologize. St. John’s then defeated lowly Georgetown, 90-85, on Wednesday in its first game after the controversy.

St. John’s started fast Sunday, using an effective pick-and-roll attack to create open midrange jumpers rather than challenge Creighton’s 7-1 center, Ryan Kalkbrenner, at the basket. The Johnnies began the game on a 22-12 run and took a 41-28 lead into the break, representing their biggest halftime advantage of Big East play.

Second-half collapses defined much of the season for St. John’s, which has lost seven games it led at halftime. Creighton made a second-half push Sunday that cut its deficit to five with under eight minutes to go, but St. John’s held on to snap a seven-game losing streak against the Bluejays, who won this season’s first meeting last month in Omaha, Neb.

“In those other games where we lost in the second half, we have been playing not to lose and scared to win the game,” Jenkins said Sunday. “There’s a lot of pressure on every shot. There’s a lot of pressure on each defensive possession. … Just thinking too much and worrying about the score. I didn’t look at the scoreboard one time in the second half because if you keep looking, you’re thinking you want the game to be over.”

Jordan Dingle scored 18 points for St. John’s, while Joel Soriano contributed 12 points and seven rebounds. Trey Alexander led all players with 31 points for Creighton, which came in on a four-game winning streak but shot just 39.7% from the floor and 23.1% on 3-point attempts Sunday.

The win provided a boost for a St. John’s team that, in its first season under the title-winning Pitino, continues to hold out hope of returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2019.

“Coming into this game, we weren’t thinking ahead,” said forward Glenn Taylor Jr., who led St. John’s with 10 rebounds. “We are just trying to take it game-by-game. We knew this was a big one coming off [Creighton’s] win against UConn, but there was no doubt in our head that we were going to win this game. I just felt like we have to continue to do that and stack games. Who knows where we could go?”

St. John’s has three regular-season games remaining, beginning Wednesday with a road meeting against 16-12 Butler. The Red Storm then play the Big East’s two weakest teams, DePaul and Georgetown, before next month’s conference tournament, which is set to take place at Madison Square Garden.