NEWARK - St. John's guard Phil Greene IV said pre-season that the Red Storm have the best backcourt in not only the Big East, but the country.
If we're taking Greene at his word, then that means Seton Hall's guards should also be considered some of the best in the nation after leading the Pirates to a 78-67 upset of No. 15 St. John's in the Big East's opener at Prudential Center on Wednesday.
"I think we can be considered [one of the better backcourts], to be completely honest," said junior guard Sterling Gibbs. "They have a proven backcourt, their backcourt is really good. I think we were just able to get the loose balls, different things here and there. They definitely have a great backcourt, but at the same time, we're no slouch as well."
Gibbs led the charge for Seton Hall early and often, finishing with 25 points, eight assists and zero turnovers. The performance had Steve Lavin calling it "as close to a masterpiece for a leader and point guard that you can have" after the game. Lavin added that it was one of the best showings from a point guard that he's seen over his coaching career.
"Sterling Gibbs played one of the better games that any player has played against St. John's in recent years," commended Lavin.
Gibbs was a lethal 5-of-7 from beyond the arc and scored his 25 points on just 13 shots, while failing to turn the ball over a single time (his intercepted tip to a teammate in transition didn't officially count.)
Equally as important, Gibbs was able to get his backcourt mates involved, to great effect. Versatile freshman Khadeen Carrington contributed 11 points and three assists, most of which came in the first half, while Jaren Sina snapped out of a cold streak by nailing 4-of-8 triples. Sina finished with 14 points. Extra passes and sharing the rock liberally culminated in 18 team assists and just nine turnovers against a stout St. John's defense that has excelled when turning opponents over.
"I thought it was terrific," said Kevin Willard of his team's sharing of the ball. "That was our biggest worry going into the game because they had been turning people over. I think we only had two turnovers that led to their baskets, and obviously Sterling played a phenomenal game."
Sina, who was 10-of-39 (25%) from three over his last eight games, started to heat up late in the first half. His added offensive production was something that hadn't been seen in awhile with just one double-digit scoring total (Maine) under his belt since the Paradise Jam.
"I think it was important that Jaren made a layup and then a three," said Willard. "That got his confidence going a little bit and then gave us the weapon that he is on the court. I thought that was the biggest part of that [13-4 Seton Hall] run, because it relaxed him a little bit and gave us another guy on the court as a weapon."
"Once I hit that one three before the half, I just started feeling it," said Sina. "At that point, I wasn't thinking, I was just playing. When I do that, I think I'm at my best."
The 13-4 run flipped a four-point St. John's lead into a five-point advantage for Seton Hall at the half and injected life into the 9,183 on hand at Prudential Center on New Year's Eve.
Innocent at the time, the late surge from Seton Hall would prove pivotal.
The Hall held leads of 14 mid-way through the second half and 10 after the under-eight timeout, but never relinquished their advantage despite a late St. John's push that cut the deficit to two with 5:41 to play.
"I was impressed with the way we responded," said Willard of his team, who answered with a 13-2 run from the 5:41 mark on until Phil Greene IV made a late lay up. "This is the first time we've been in a close game since George Washington. I think that is the difference, the older guys settled everyone else down to finish off the game."
Of course Sterling Gibbs played a role in the last, fatal Pirate run. His seven points and assist accounted for nine of the 13 points that would sink St. John's and seal the upset for Seton Hall. The win also snapped a three-game winning streak for the Red Storm in the cross-river rivalry.
When asked whether he sees himself and his teammates as a top-25 team now, Gibbs is only thinking about his next opponent, No. 6 Villanova.
"Psh, I'm honestly thinking about Villanova on Saturday. That's a big game for us. If we're able to play them the way I envision us playing, everything will work itself out."