An Era Comes to a Close at St. John's As Obekpa's Absence Dominates the Storyline | Zagsblog
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Friday / June 21.
  • An Era Comes to a Close at St. John’s As Obekpa’s Absence Dominates the Storyline

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    — With 1 minute and 4 seconds remaining against San Diego State, D’Angelo Harrison picked up his fifth and final foul and walked to the St. John’s bench in TWC Arena.

    A group of red-clad St. John’s fans who had made the journey here chanted, “Thank you, D-Lo, thank you D-Lo.”

    On the bench, Harrison put a white towel over his head as the reality set in.

    Moments later, his college career — and an era at St. John’s — came to a close when the No. 9 Red Storm fell to No. 8 San Diego State 76-64 in a Round of 64 South Region game. The Aztecs (27-8) and not the Johnnies (21-12) will advance to play Jahlil Okafor and No. 1 Duke on Sunday.

    “When I sat down that’s when it hit me, but it’s tough,” Harrison said. “I don’t know how to put it in words yet.”

    NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-2nd Round-San Diego State vs St. John'sIt was the end of the line for Harrison (18 points, 9 rebounds), whose brother DeAndre watched the game from a Texas prison where he is serving a 10-year sentence after pleading to aggravated assault with a deadly weapon in a capital murder case.

    And it was the end of the line for his fellow seniors, Sir’Dominic Pointer (21 and 10), Phil Greene IV and Jamal Branch.

    “These kids are superheroes in my eyes and I told them that,” St. John’s coach Steve Lavin said. “This group, because of what they had to overcome and where they started in school history.

    “They gave everything they had to this University and they gave us a special ride this season so I couldn’t be more proud of them.”

    NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-2nd Round-San Diego State vs St. John'sFor as hard as the St. John’s guys played, the dominant storyline in the post-game press conference was the absence of junior center Chris Obekpa, who was suspended for two weeks for a violation of team rules, which sources said was a failed drug test for marijuana use.

    San Diego State scored 30 points in the paint and their athletic forays to the basket often went uncontested because St. John’s best shot-blocker — and one of the best shot-blockers in the nation — was not on the court.

    “St. John’s is not as good a team without the big shot-blocker in the middle,” San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said. “We knew he wasn’t going to play so I watched very little film [of him]. With him in there it would’ve been harder for us going to the rim.”

    Lavin and his players tried to downplay Obekpa’s absence, but it was obvious they would’ve been a different team with him on the court. And they will never know how things might have been different had Obekpa played in this game.

    NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-2nd Round-San Diego State vs St. John's“You can say the game would be different but that wasn’t a factor,” Harrison said. “We’re like 6-1 when he doesn’t play so we didn’t use that as an excuse. He’s 6-9, he does different things but we didn’t use that as an excuse, we just tried to play hard.”

    Lavin talked about Rysheed Jordan’s foul trouble as a factor in the loss, but even he had to admit Obekpa’s absence was critical.

    “Ideally, we would’ve preferred to have Chris’s services today,” he said.

    When I asked if the door was open for Obekpa’s return next season, Lavin didn’t hesitate.

    “I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he doesn’t return to St. John’s,” the coach said.

    So there it is.

    In addition to losing the seniors Harrison, Pointer, Greene IV and Branch — who all should have a chance to earn money playing ball next season — Obekpa is gone, too.

    Where he lands next year is anybody’s guess. Overseas, the D-League, transferring. Who knows?

    Who knows what Jordan will do, the recruiting class is a work in progress (to say the least) and Lavin’s own future remains unclear.

    NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-2nd Round-San Diego State vs St. John'sThe University has said it will “evaluate” him after the season as he heads into the final year of his initial six-year deal.

    Either they must extend him so he’s not a lame duck going into next season, or they must move on.

    Some St. John’s fans are already clamoring for Buffalo coach Bobby Hurley, who will have no shortage of suitors after the No. 12 Bulls pushed No. 5 West Virginia before losing 68-62 earlier Friday in Columbus, Ohio.

    Those questions will be answered in due time, but the Johnnies will never know the answer to the question of what might have happened had Chris Obekpa played in this game.

    “We had a great year, a successful year as  a team,” Pointer said. “Everybody played their hearts out, that’s all we can ask for.”

    Photos; Jeremy Brevard/ USA Today Sports

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    Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle. A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.

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