St. John’s Plays Small to Overcome 13 Point Deficit in 76-70 Victory vs. St. Francis Brooklyn

Shooters cold for second straight game, but guards efficient in the paint

TORCH PHOTO/ Brady Snyder

TORCH PHOTO/ Brady Snyder

St. John’s played without the grit and intensity that defined their identity in their first two wins of the season for the better part of 30 minutes. They found it in the final ten with a small lineup that forced defensive pressure in order to turn the tables Tuesday night and secure the 76-70 victory versus St. Francis Brooklyn.

St. John’s head coach Mike Anderson was in uncharted territory for the second consecutive game without his two primary ball handlers, Posh Alexander (lower leg strain) and Rafael Pinzon (finger). Anderson was forced to tweak the starting lineup for the first time this season, replacing Alexander with sophomore guard Dylan Addae-Wusu. 

The difference was noticeable early on, as Addae-Wusu and Stef Smith struggled to corral the rock in the opening minutes of the game. Made baskets by Joel Soriano and Julian Champagnie mitigated what he described as “slow” and “a little sloppy” in a post game media conference. 

It wouldn’t be held off for long because after those made baskets, the Red Storm didn’t score again for the next five minutes. To make matters worse, the Terriers’ guards became sharpshooters from behind the arc on their 12-0 scoring run. “We have to come out with more energy and tighten up our rebounding and defending,” Champagnie added. 

The Johnnies’ changed their offensive approach near the middle of the first half after they were failing to convert on their long jump shots. Montez Mathis and Aaron Wheeler led the charge by driving to the basket and executing layups on offense and forcing turnovers and blocking shots on defense. 

It got St. John’s back in the game, but when the Red Storm got close, the Terriers pulled further away with near-automatic three-point shooting. They would close the half with 11 made threes at a 52.4 percent clip, a significant margin better than their season average of 26.7 percent coming into Tuesday night’s game. 

“First of all, we were giving [up] middle drives,” Anderson said. “When you give middle drives they have options to pass the basketball.” And when St. Francis Brooklyn passed to the perimeter, more often than not the Terriers were wide open. 

Both Anderson and Champagnie agreed recent performances, especially early in games, have left something to be desired. “We have to come out and play better in the first half,” Champagnie said. 

But they also noted that the team has only played five games as a unit and even the most experienced teams have struggles. “Every team has their mental lapses sometimes,” Champagnie said. “We’re happening to have ours now.” 

Anderson tried to switch things up at the start of the second half with Aaron Wheeler, someone he likes to use at the top of the press, in place of the traditional big man Soriano. Anderson promptly removed Wheeler after a turnover, something he’s done with his bigs on multiple occasions this season. O’Mar Stanley got a chance as the big man on the court, and the Red Storm crawled back once again, but were unable to grasp the lead. 

With under ten minutes remaining and St. John’s unable to take control of a game they were expected to cruise through, Anderson pulled Soriano from the game and went small. For the remainder of the night, Champagnie was playing the five as the only forward in the lineup. 

It immediately paid off, with Addae-Wusu, Champagnie and Mathis forcing turnovers, drawing fouls and driving to the basket. St. John’s went on a 16-2 scoring run to put them on top for the first time since the opening minutes of the game, led by Champagnie’s ten points during that run. “We found the right combination of five guys and got it going quickly,” Champagnie said. 

A few more turnovers — this time resulting from a high level of intensity, rather than a low one — kept the game closer than it could have been. When the final buzzer sounded, St. John’s had overcome a 13 point deficit to beat a team they were supposed to beat. 

Though the team failed to convert on long jumpers and struggled with perimeter defense for the second straight game, they found dominance in the paint. A combination of players, from bigs like Soriano to forwards like Champagnie to guards like Addae-Wusu, managed to score in the paint. In past outings, the Red Storm lost their stroke and couldn’t adapt, but tonight the Johnnies scored 56 points in the paint. 

Starting point guard Alexander, who missed the St. Francis Brooklyn game with a lower leg strain, is day-to-day and could return as early as Saturday, Nov. 27 vs. NJIT. The backup, Pinzon, is dealing with a left ring finger injury and is out indefinitely. 

Anderson and his team have one game to figure out the issues — Saturday versus NJIT at Carnesecca Arena — before they face No. 4 Kansas at the brand new UBS arena on Dec. 3. They’ve been able to overcome missteps against mediocre teams, but they’ll need to play with more energy and focus to stand a chance against one of the top teams in the nation.