- Kieran Darcy, ESPNNewYork.com
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NEW YORK -- The last time St. John's played a game at Carnesecca Arena, it was way back on Dec. 7. The Red Storm, riding a five-game winning streak, were stunned by St. Bonaventure, 67-66, courtesy of an Andrew Nicholson jumper with 5.2 seconds left.
Losing to Cincinnati (17-3, 4-3 Big East) wasn't quite as stunning, but it was a lot more damaging. St. John's (11-7, 4-4) squandered a golden opportunity to pick up a win against a conference foe likely to be sitting right next to the Red Storm on the bubble come Selection Sunday.
And in a battle between pretty evenly matched teams, the outcome essentially came down to one thing: free throw shooting. St. John's shot a cringe-inducing 12-for-26 from the charity stripe.
"Our players battled valiantly and really did everything we wanted to do in the second half -- except convert from the foul line," St. John's coach Steve Lavin said.
Free throw shooting has plagued this team before. St. John's shot just 65.2 percent as a team last season, ranking No. 289 in the country. Lavin made improving in this area one of the team's three focal points prior to the start of the season.
And the Red Storm have improved. Coming into this game, St. John's was shooting 71.6 percent as a team. And through their first seven Big East games, the Red Storm led the conference at a sparkling 81.8 percent.
But they relapsed in a big way Saturday. And just as it cost them in that loss to the Bonnies (10-for-20), it cost them versus the Bearcats.
"That's what makes the loss that much more heartbreaking or discouraging, is they played so well, and they counterpunched all night and they really executed effectively and got good looks at the basket," Lavin said. "And then when we got fouled, we ended up with what's the equivalent of empty possessions by not putting points on the board."
Seven St. John's players missed at least one foul shot. Among them, D.J. Kennedy was 4-for-8, Sean Evans was 4-for-7 and Justin Burrell was 1-for-4. And it was no coincidence that those guys ended up on the foul line.
"We fouled when we were supposed to foul -- really by design," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. "We were trying to be committed to not giving up layups -- especially against their bigger people, who have historically struggled in our league in making free throws."
But the biggest miss, ironically, came from Dwight Hardy. St. John's leading scorer, who was shooting 90.7 percent from the line this season (13th in Division I), was fouled with 34 seconds left and St. John's leading 51-50. You expected two makes, and then Cincinnati would have to scramble.
Instead, Hardy left the front end of a 1-and-1 short, and the Bearcats came down and scored the winning basket. Hardy had a chance to tie it at the very end but missed a runner from the right wing in the final seconds.
"I'm a 90 percent free throw shooter," Hardy said. "I should have made the shot."
St. John's has lost three of its past four games heading into a matchup with No. 23 Georgetown in our nation's capital Wednesday. After that, the Red Storm will host No. 5 Duke at Madison Square Garden.
But on this night, the Red Storm were left to ponder what might have been.
"I don't think it's a disappointment," St. John's guard Malik Boothe said. "Nobody came into the locker room and said that they didn't leave everything out on the court."
But the road to March Madness just got tougher.
Free throws. Sometimes, the game is that simple.