NEW YORK (AP) - After his club's 74-52 blowout loss at Georgetown this past Saturday, Xavier head coach Chris Mack struggled internally with the question of how hard he should practice his team prior to their Tuesday night showdown against St. John's.
Ultimately, he decided to put the team through some strenuous workouts.
His decision paid off.
Xavier, buoyed by a dominant interior performance from several of their big men, defeated St. John's 65-53 on Tuesday night.
"When you go into February and March, it's really hard," Mack said. "How long do you practice? These turnarounds are quick, but we need to put our hard hats on and get after it."
Forward Jalen Reynolds led Xavier's punishing attack in the paint. The freshman scored 17 points and grabbed 16 rebounds, dwarfing his previous career-highs in both categories. Semaj Christon had 15 for Xavier (19-9, 9-6), while Matt Stainbrook added 13, to give the Musketeers a crucial Big East road victory.
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Stainbrook spent much of the game in foul trouble, only playing 16 minutes. That left it to Reynolds, who said his ability to maintain his composure was the key to his breakout performance.
"When Matt left the game, I just had to keep my head, just do it for the team," Reynolds said. "Just try my best to get rebounds and put-backs."
Xavier and St. John's are widely thought to be on the NCAA Tournament bubble. Mack was fully aware of the game's implications, from both a Big East and NCAA Tournament perspective, again referencing those rigorous pre-game practices
"To have this much at stake, to be playing for one of the better seeds for the Big East Tournament, and (an) NCAA berth, we went back to work on Sunday and Monday and we competed."
St. John's (18-11, 8-8) simply couldn't keep the Xavier big men in check. They yielded 36 points in the paint, many of which came far too easy, according to St. John's junior guard Phil Greene IV.
"They did what they wanted on the inside," Greene IV said. "Lots of layups and dunks."
A 10-1 run over a 3:59 stretch midway through the second half put the Musketeers up by 10, 49-39. St. John's battled back to pull to within four, but could get no closer.
On the offensive end, the Red Storm followed up their 32.2 percent shooting performance against Villanova last Saturday by going just 37.3 percent from the floor. Rysheed Jordan kept the Red Storm afloat in the second half, while his teammates struggled. He scored nine of the Red Storm's first 15 points of the period. But it took St. John's 14:44 minutes to post that meager total, putting them in a hole that they were unable to dig out of.
Jordan missed practice on Monday to attend the funeral of a person St. John's would only identify as "a close family member." Orlando Sanchez, meanwhile, missed the Villanova game to be with his wife, who gave birth to the couple's daughter this past Friday. St. John's head coach Steve Lavin acknowledged the distractions, but refused to let his squad off the hook for allowing Xavier to have their way with the Red Storm in the paint.
"It was the most unusual week of my coaching career," Lavin said. "But at the end of it, that shouldn't affect our post defense. You're naturally concerned when you're not able to have the normal preparation routine, because teams and players are creatures of habit.and yet, I don't see any correlation in terms of our resistance at the rim."
A poor performance from junior guard D'Angelo Harrison hurt the Red Storm's cause. Harrison, who entered the night as the team's leading scorer averaging 17.8 per game, managed only four points, shooting a dismal 1 of 11 from the field.
JaKarr Sampson led the way for the Red Storm with 14. Sanchez had 11.
The teams battled through a low scoring first half in which neither led by more than five. Each side got a lift from their big men in the opening frame. Sanchez led the way for St. John's scoring all of his 11 points in the first, while Sampson added eight.
For Xavier, Stainbrook's 10 first half points came in only 10 minutes of action, as he picked up his second foul with 6:04 remaining and spent the rest of the half on the bench. But the Musketeers still managed to take a 31-30 lead to the locker room.
Stainbrook would go on to foul out of the contest with 3:00 to play, but the Musketeers still had plenty of firepower to prevail, thanks to the strong performance from Reynolds.