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St. John’s survives Providence’s comeback bid at MSG to improve Big East win streak

A day before Wednesday’s conference contest against Providence, St. John’s coach Rick Pitino stressed his surging Red Storm still had “so much room for improvement” despite a strong start to Big East play.

That much was clear Wednesday, even in a winning effort.

The Red Storm got off to a red-hot start, then blew a 15-point lead to the short-handed Friars before putting Providence away for good during a roller-coaster 75-73 victory at Madison Square Garden.

“It was a great learning experience,” Pitino said after the tight win. “When you can win and learn, fabulous. We did a lot of great things in the first half. In the second half, due to Providence’s brilliant play, we did a lot of poor things.”

St. John’s began the game on a 10-0 run, riding a 3-for-3 start by sharp-shooting freshman Brady Dunlap. That advantage ballooned to 20-5 with 12:58 to go in the first half as point guard Daniss Jenkins pushed an up-tempo attack leading to quick looks for himself and others.

The Red Storm seemed poised for a clean victory — even with leading scorer Joel Soriano being held without a point for nearly the first 18 minutes – when they took a 40-29 lead into halftime.

Then the Friars caught fire.

Providence began the second half on a 16-4 run, with guard Devin Carter scoring nine of the Friars’ points over that stretch. Carter’s transition lay-in after a Jordan Dingle turnover gave Providence its first lead of the game, 45-44, with 14:30 remaining.

St. John’s regained control from there, immediately responding with a 17-3 run that included a three-pointer and four assists by Jenkins.

“I just told the guys, ‘Just take deep breaths, because now we have to fight fire with fire,’” Jenkins said. “‘We can’t lay down. … It’s our turn to attack.’ That was my mindset.”

The Red Storm never trailed again but allowed the Friars to hang around. Soriano fouled Carter on a three-point attempt with 24 seconds to go, which led to two points and cut the St. John’s lead to three. St. John’s failed to corral a rebound when Carter missed his third free throw, leading to two more points.

St. John’s missed three of its four free throws in the waning seconds, allowing Providence’s Jayden Pierre to attempt a would-be game-winner from deep as time expired.

Pierre missed, and St. John’s survived.

After shooting 56.7% from the field in the first half, the Red Storm slumped to 37.5% in the second. St. John’s surrendered 13 offensive rebounds, leading to 12 second-chance points for Providence.

Carter, who averaged 16.9 points per game coming in, led all players with 31 points and 13 rebounds for Providence before fouling out.

“This was great for our team to understand if you rebound like that, you take challenged shots like that and you allow a guard [Carter] to rebound like that, you’re going to lose some close ones,” Pitino said.

“They know I’m upset in the locker room tonight because I have bigger aspirations for them than they do,” Pitino said. I have bigger aspirations for Joel. I have bigger aspirations for the team, because we’re getting better.”

Soriano finished with 16 points and seven rebounds, while Jenkins added 16 points and eight assists.

The win marked the Red Storm’s fourth in a row and improved their conference record to 4-1, tying Seton Hall atop the Big East. Their lone conference loss came against the defending national champion UConn Huskies, who are currently ranked No. 4 in the nation.

St. John’s improved to 12-4 overall this season, which is the program’s first under Pitino. The 71-year-old Pitino, who coached Providence from 1985-87 and led the Friars to a Final Four berth, is tasked with turning around a St. John’s team with only three NCAA Tournament appearances since 2002.

With Wednesday’s loss, Providence fell to 11-5 overall and 2-3 in Big East play. The Friars lost forward Bryce Hopkins – who was averaging 15.5 points and a team-leading 8.6 rebounds per game – to a season-ending ACL tear last week.

Providence, which began 2-0 in conference play, fell from No. 23 to out of the rankings in the latest poll.

Wednesday was the Red Storm’s first conference game at Madison Square Garden this season. Up next is a road game against No. 22 Creighton on Saturday.