St. John’s Drops the Gotham Classic Finale, 59-57 at Madison Square Garden

The loss comes without star Champagnie amid a slew of Big East COVID positives.

TORCH PHOTO/ Sara Kiernan

TORCH PHOTO/ Sara Kiernan

St. John’s fell to Pittsburgh 59-57 in their first game at Madison Square Garden with fans since the cancellation of the 2020 Big East Tournament. In the midst of another COVID-19 outbreak in sports, the Gotham Classic finale was not left untouched. 

The first St. John’s game at Madison Square Garden was eerily reminiscent of the last St. John’s game at the “World’s Most Famous Arena.” Two days before the Gotham Classic was scheduled to finish, it was announced that issues within the No. 16 Seton Hall basketball program would force the cancellation of the Seton Hall versus Iona matchup at 3 p.m. Saturday. 

Just hours before tip-off, it was reported that St. John’s star forward Julian Champagnie had a breakthrough positive COVID-19 case and would be unavailable for the noon game. St. John’s coach Mike Anderson said the team was notified a few days earlier, significantly shifting the game plan. “That’s the adjustment for a team,” Anderson said. “That’s one of your leading scorers [that can’t play], but I told our guys someone else has to step up.”

Anderson replaced Champagnie with Aaron Wheeler and left the starting five around him untouched from previous contests. The group started off both slow and inefficient on offense, battling at the glass on both ends of the court. After four minutes of play, the two teams were tied at just six points each. 

The bench got involved early after the Red Storm reserves scored vital points in the team’s last win against Colgate. Joel Soriano entered the game early and the first half and played much better defense. That defensive presence set up a long two-point try for Soriano – a shot he doesn’t usually take – and he knocked it down. 

By the end of the first half, Soriano led the team in both points (eight) and rebounds (four). After a stretch of poor performances, Soriano’s defense in the paint against a physical Pittsburgh team was a welcome effort. The defense across the board was dominant in the first half, forcing 11 turnovers, but the offense struggled to capitalize. After leading by as many as ten points, St. John’s closed out the half with a three-point lead. 

When the Johnnies returned from the locker room, it was much of the same. The team struggled to find an offensive rhythm and only kept it close on strong defense. Even that was far from perfect, though. The team forced 18 turnovers throughout the afternoon but scored just nine points off of the resulting possessions. 

When we were getting turnovers we didn’t get out in the open floor,” the point guard Posh Alexander said. “We would slow it down and not look up ahead [for our teammates].”

St. John’s had stretches where they didn’t score for minutes against a Pittsburgh team that has been largely unthreatening since Justin Champagnie – Julian’s twin brother – was drafted by the NBA over the summer. The fatal flaw of the effort was at the free throw line, where the Johnnies shot just seven of 14 for a measly 50 percent mark. 

After a back and forth second half where each team traded scoring runs, the two teams were tied at 55 points each with two minutes remaining in regulation. Shortly after the Red Storm defense stopped Pittsburgh from scoring, Stef Smith crashed into a defender around midcourt. Officials ruled it a traveling violation and the Johnnies lost a chance at a late-game possession. In his postgame media conference, Anderson acknowledged he was displeased with “more than a few” calls, but couldn’t comment on officiating.

Pittsburgh took the lead with two free throws and St. John’s got the ball back with just 16 seconds on the clock. After burning eight seconds moving up the floor, Dylan Addae-Wusu was fouled and proceeded to knock down both free throws to tie up the game again at 57. 

The Johnnies didn’t press on the inbound, and Pittsburgh ended the game with a fadeaway two-point jumper. I thought we could have not let the guy have a straight-line drive, but he made a play,” Anderson said. “When you let a team hang around, it comes back to bite you, and it did.”

The next scheduled St. John’s game has already been canceled due to Seton Hall’s COVID-19 outbreak. Per Big East rules, St. John’s will be assessed a win in the standings while Seton Hall receives a forfeit loss. Each team is required to have seven scholarship players eligible for a game to be played, according to the rules the conference put in place prior to the 2021-22 season. 

All that does for the Johnnies is help with Big East Tournament seeding. The Monday, Dec. 20 matchup would have been a Quad 1 game that would have supported the Red Storm’s strength of schedule. Instead, St. John’s will now open Big East conference play on Thursday, Dec. 23 vs. Butler at Carnesecca Arena.