CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Without suspended big man Chris Obekpa, the operative question for St. John's as its NCAA Tournament second-round game against San Diego State wore on was whether the Red Storm would run out of time or fouls among the starting five.
The answer in that battle of attrition was: time. D'Angelo Harrison's stellar career ended with his fifth foul with just over a minute left, but by then the game was out of hand for the undermanned Red Storm in a 76-64 loss.
When coach Steve Lavin pulled the rest of his seniors in the final seconds, a band of St. John's fans chanted "Thank you, seniors!"
It was a sentimental ending to a four-year journey over one obstacle after another. Harrison, who is third on the school's career scoring list, totaled 18 points and nine rebounds and combined with Sir'Dominic Pointer, who had 21 points and 10 rebounds, to keep it competitive for St. John's (21-12).
Pointer said of the team's failure to win a Big East Tournament or NCAA Tournament game in four years: "We played our hearts out and had a successful year as a team. That's all you can ask for.''
The Aztecs were led by J.J. O'Brien's 18 points and got 15 from former Red Storm member Dwayne Polee II, who hit five of the nine three-pointers made by SDSU (27-8), which advanced to meet Duke on Sunday.
The Red Storm's first NCAA berth in four years was marred by the two-week suspension of Obekpa, the nation's fifth-leading shot-blocker, for a violation of team rules. That reduced a regular six-man rotation to a very small starting five.
"It was tough, but we didn't use it as an excuse,'' Harrison said of playing without Obekpa. "They got off to a hot start. We dared them to shoot, and they were making it.''
The Aztecs went to the rim early, drawing two fouls on St. John's point guard Rysheed Jordan (10 points) and forcing him out with 17:51 left in the first half. Polee hit a three-pointer over a St. John's zone defense for a 10-4 SDSU lead.
But Pointer asserted himself, scoring nine points in a 15-4 run that gave St. John's a 19-14 lead. Four times he weaved his way through traffic and scored. But the Aztecs responded toward the end of the half to lead 40-33 at halftime.
Although St. John's shot 50 percent in the opening half and was even on the boards, the Aztecs' 7-for-16 three-point shooting had a huge impact.
San Diego State opened the second half with Polee's fifth three-pointer to feed into an 11-2 run that began with the last basket of the first half for a 49-35 lead. Pointer picked up his third foul but stayed in the game, and the Aztecs immediately attacked the paint area successfully.
Midway through the second half, St. John's managed a 7-0 surge that cut the deficit to 55-48, but the Red Storm blew an opportunity to climb all the way back. They held the Aztecs to 0-for-6 shooting and forced four turnovers, but the Storm gave it back on the other end with four turnovers in five possessions.
Then St. John's began to accumulate more fouls. Harrison and Branch picked up their third, and Pointer was tagged with his fourth with 7:59 left. Harrison's fourth came at the 5:18 mark as the thread by which the Storm's chances were hanging began to fray. The Aztecs pushed their lead back to 65-53 when Matt Shrigley hit a corner three at 4:33.
When Jamal Branch picked up his fourth foul with 2:06 left, it meant only Phil Greene IV and Jordan had fouls to give, and it was too late by then.
Said Lavin, "Big picture, I'm proud of our seniors for taking us on this ride. True to their character, they showed fight and grit to the last possession.''