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BLOCK SHOTS: Johnnies grow under watch of ‘Kindergarten Cop’

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Steve Lavin likes to compare himself to Detective John Kimble, and he should.

Stay with me now. The St. John’s men’s basketball coach is in a similar situation to one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s most famous movie characters.

“It’s a challenge to keep our kids focused on the task at hand,” Lavin said. “Like I’ve said before, it’s the Kindergarten Cop.”

Lavin, like Kimble, is armed with a whistle, trying to teach a group of impressionable young minds how to be poised under pressure and disciplined while still having fun. So far, so good as St. John’s rattled off four straight Big East wins, culminating in a victory over Seton Hall Sunday at Madison Square Garden.

Things weren’t always rolling this well. There is a reason Lavin calls this year his most challenging season ever — exhausting and exhilarating at the same time.

Kimble’s task left him leaving the school yelling at the top of his lungs on the first day. Lavin is too cool and confident to throw up his hands like that.

Instead, Lavin has done a fine job massaging this team’s psyche when it appears it might break. He refocused them when they blew a lead and Seton Hall pulled within one late in the second half.

Holding onto a lead is a far cry from the basketball the Red Storm played early in the season.

They would fall behind to inferior teams, but find ways to rally from large deficits. Lavin warned of the dangers. It caught up to them in losses to San Francisco, UNC Ashville and Villanova. Those defeats, along with a loss to Rutgers, were scrapes on the Red Storm’s proverbial knees.

The Johnnies’ 16-point home loss to Georgetown, on the other hand, was a schoolyard-type beating that’s often the catalyst for growth. Lavin didn’t dwell on it because the kids were hard enough on themselves.

“We are very embarrassed by this,” guard Sir’Dominic Pointer said.

They took the blow, dusted themselves off and fought back.

There was blood on the court again in the next game against Notre Dame — real blood this time. Sophomore guard D’Angelo Harrison was cut open by an errant elbow from an opposing player. He and his teammates didn’t flinch. Instead, he hit a key three-pointer to give the Red Storm a win over the then-No. 20 Irish.

The momentum hasn’t stopped since and neither has the growth.

“This team because of our youth is learning at a more rapid rate than a veteran team,” Lavin said. “A veteran team has already learned many of those lessons.”

Beating Seton Hall shows what they have comprehended so far and the work that still needs to be done. They withstood hot Pirates shooting and losing a lead. Harrison ensured the win by scoring nine of his team’s final 11 points.

The young Johnnies have come a long way, with plenty more to go.

“Coach Lavin always says we are just scratching the surface,” Harrison said. “That’s his motto for right now. We feel the same way.”

Reach Sports Editor Joseph Staszewski by e-mail at jstaszewski@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4545.

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