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Saint Mary’s (Cal)-St. John’s Preview

Four years ago, Steve Lavin began his coaching tenure at St. John’s with a loss at Saint Mary’s.

With a home victory over the Gaels on Friday night, the No. 20 Red Storm will match the program’s best start since the season before Lavin arrived in Queens.

Since Lavin took over the program in 2010, St. John’s (8-1) has recorded two 20-win seasons and in his first season returned to the NCAA tournament for the first time in nine years. Paced by the senior trio of D’Angelo Harrison (19.7 points per game), Phil Greene IV (11.7 ppg) and Sir’Dominic Pointer (10.2), the Red Storm are in position to go 9-1 for the first time since 2009-10.

“This group has made steady, measurable progress from 13 wins as freshman, to 17 wins as sophomores, 20 wins as juniors and now 8-1 (and) in the Top 25 as seniors,” Lavin said. “It’s clear that this is a group that has matured and developed their game, both individually and collectively, during their time here.”

Harrison has averaged 24.0 points on 22-of-38 shooting in the last three games. He scored 22 while sophomore reserve Rysheed Jordan matched a career high with 24 on 9-of-12 shooting in Sunday’s 74-53 win over Fordham at Madison Square Garden, the Red Storm’s fourth straight victory.

St. John’s showed some resiliency by overcoming a six-point deficit against the Rams, and later in the first half when 6-foot-10 Chris Obekpa was lost for the game after being slapped with his second technical foul.

Obekpa entered that contest averaging 9.9 rebounds and 4.1 blocks but recorded six points, three boards and didn’t block a shot in 16 minutes before leaving.

Lavin went to a smaller, quicker lineup that helped the Red Storm hold Fordham to 38.8 percent shooting and match a season high with 20 forced turnovers they turned into 28 points.

The Red Storm are allowing an average of 54.8 points on 35.8 percent shooting in four games since then-No. 10 Gonzaga shot 52.9 percent to beat them 73-66 on Nov. 28 at MSG.

“We’ll continue to explore our smaller, pressing units with a baseline-to-baseline, up-tempo and attacking style, but it’s nice to have the luxury to go big (with Obekpa),” Lavin said.

Obekpa expects to be in for a serious challenge against 6-10 Saint Mary’s senior Brad Waldow, who ranks among the national leaders averaging 21.6 points and 10.8 boards. He had 25 points with season highs of 15 rebounds and six assists during a 73-71 home loss to Northern Arizona on Tuesday.

Though the Gaels (6-2) have dropped two of three, that victory came at previously ranked Creighton, 71-67 in overtime on Saturday.

However, they’ve allowed an average of 74.0 points in the last three contests, and 52.3 percent shooting in the losses to Boise State and the Lumberjacks. Northern Arizona shot 51.7 percent to take a nine-point lead into halftime.

“We’re not very good defensively,” coach Randy Bennett told Saint Mary’s official website. “Our guards don’t defend. We’ve got to get better there. Everybody’s playing us the same way.”

Saint Mary’s has won at least 23 games in seven consecutive seasons, but has never beat a Top 25 team on the road.

The Gaels won 76-71 in Lavin’s St. John’s debut Nov. 15, 2010.

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