CINCINNATI -- St. John's coach Steve Lavin emphasized rebounding with his team during Friday's practice, Saturday's pregame meal, halftime and down the stretch.
The Bearcats (13-2, 1-1) began the day second in the nation in rebounding (45.3), but the Red Storm (9-5, 1-1) beat Cincinnati at its own game, relying on a physical presence in the paint to outlast the Bearcats.
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Four of the previous five games in the series had been decided by exactly two points. After St. John's built a 12-point lead early in the second half Saturday, it looked like that trend would end until Cincinnati fought back late in the game.
Wright hit two 3-pointers in an 8-0 run that pulled Cincinnati within one with 2:32 left in the game. Wright's layup with 53 seconds to play gave the Bearcats a 52-51 lead.
But Red Storm leading scorer D'Angelo Harrison, coming off a career-high 36 points in the team's 98-86 overtime loss to Villanova on Wednesday, hit a jumper with 29 seconds left to regain the lead. Harrison finished with 15 points.
"My teammates believed in me, Coach called it a great play, I got the switch I wanted, and I just pulled up right over him and it was a great shot," Harrison said. "Coach could have called anyone's number, and he called my number and I delivered."
Titus Rubles, who finished with 14 points, squared up for Cincinnati with 6 seconds left but missed the jumper. St. John's pulled down the rebound, which forced Cincinnati to foul with 3 seconds left and heave a last-minute shot from beyond half court at the buzzer.
"I said to the team, why don't we take this opportunity today to flip it and outrebound Cincinnati so we can win?" Lavin said. "And they came through. When you're aggressive, you tend to have a bounce come your way, you tend to make a shot like D'Angelo did. The aggressive team is the one who makes their breaks, and I thought we were able to finally get over the hump and finish a win because we were aggressive from start to finish."
The Red Storm missed nine of their first 10 shots but stayed in the game thanks to solid play on the boards.
Cincinnati led by seven points with 6:14 left in the first half, but St. John's found its scoring touch inside as the Bearcats' offense fizzled.
Cincinnati's first-half offense looked similar to its last home game, a 55-54 loss to New Mexico on Dec. 27, in which it missed 21 shots in the paint and shot just 31.3 percent from the field. Cincinnati managed to shoot 28.6 percent in the first half Saturday, well below the team's 43.6 percent mark for the season, and shot just 31.7 percent for the game.
"Point blank, they just beat us," Wright said. "Every loose ball, every rebound, they just got it and outplayed us. It seems like we just started going through the motions of the game and thinking we'd be able to win it no matter what instead of just playing."
JaKarr Sampson, who led the Red Storm with 16 points, saw Saturday's game as redemption for a subpar performance in Wednesday's loss to Villanova. In that game, Sampson fouled out after scoring just two points.
"I was just a little sick after that game because I felt like I didn't contribute enough to my team," Sampson said. "I felt like I was a little piece of the reason why we lost. but I bounced back tonight and got it started tonight."