Anderson Unable To Reconcile Lost Season After Dropping Second Straight Game

St. John’s ceded the first home game versus UConn in nearly a decade, 63-60

No. 23 Montez Mathis dribbles enroute to a team-high 14 points.

TORCH PHOTO/ Sara Kiernan

No. 23 Montez Mathis dribbles enroute to a team-high 14 points.

NEW YORK, NY — An unfathomable scoring drought to end the game wasted an admirable effort from St. John’s for the better part of 30 minutes, leaving fans, players and coaches searching for answers amidst a lost season. The 63-60 loss versus No. 24 Connecticut, in the first matchup with the Huskies at home since they departed the conference nearly ten years ago, was the latest evidence of a Red Storm team unable to close out a must-win game. 

The loss firmly relegated St. John’s to the basement of the most competitive Big East conference since the realignment. Connecticut head coach Dan Hurley called it “the best league in the country this year,” with five teams in the latest AP Top 25 basketball poll. The Big East is rivaled only by the Big Ten, which also has five ranked teams, but is led by No. 3 Purdue. 

It seems nothing more than a distant memory when St. John’s was picked to finish fourth in the league according to conference coaches in a preseason poll. The team was returning the reigning Big East Coach of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Freshman of the Year and the league’s leading scorer. It added proven talents — some from majors, others from mid-majors — all with promising track records. 

But the regression and inconsistency displayed by the players derailed hopes of the program’s first NCAA tournament appearance under Mike Anderson’s tenure. The team missed 16 layups, which have been an issue all season. Same with shooting percentage, rebounding and free-throw shooting — essentially, all of the components of a good offensive basketball team. 

“The amount of lay-ups we miss a game is unacceptable,” said junior forward Julian Champagnie, who has been fighting through the worst slump of his career. “We have to get better at it, that goes for myself and everybody else.” As to why such an experienced, veteran team is struggling with trivial components to the game of basketball, no one has an answer. 

“That’s a mystery to me,” Anderson said, noting that it’s something the team works on daily. “It kind of befuddles me that guys aren’t finishing.” Regardless, it’s something that not only hasn’t been improved through 24 games, but has also become more exposed in conference play. 

Without the services of Posh Alexander, who is recovering from an ankle sprain, the team’s woes under the basket are magnified. Alexander has a knack for finding his way to the basket despite his relatively small stature, and his absence exposes the team’s flaws. The sophomore point guard is the team’s main ball handler and he’s responsible for creating open looks for other offensive threats. 

When Alexander is unavailable, the offense stagnates. Champagnie, the team’s leading scorer, acknowledged the shot selection issues plaguing St. John’s. “When we have open opportunities, we have to knock them down,” Champagnie said. “We take a lot of contested shots every game.” 

But for the first half, and much of the second, it wasn’t an issue. Connecticut’s Tyrese Martin played defense with quickness and agility in an attempt to disrupt the Red Storm’s ball handlers, unphasing Stef Smith and Dylan Addae-Wusu. The guards were ferociously dribbling around the Husky defense, who played up to the St. John’s high-tempo play with poise, but only surrendered four turnovers in the first half. 

The turning point for St. John’s, who had been hanging within a possession or two for the entire first half, was when Connecticut’s Martin silenced the crowd in a celebration. The game was in New York, but rabid Husky fans were loudly making their presence felt, inciting “Let’s Go Huskies,” chants throughout the afternoon. 

It agitated the fans, and it seemed like it affected Montez Mathis, who scored ten out of his team-high 14 points in the second half. Mathis came in off the bench following an abysmal shooting performance versus Villanova, making just one of 14 shots in the loss. The guard was spacing the floor, driving to the basket and creating opportunities for other scorers. 

It was largely Mathis’ effort that pushed the Johnnies out to a seven-point lead with under eight minutes remaining. Anderson described his play as assertive and aggressive, saying “he responded the right way.” 

But that was just about all of the life in the offense through the end of regulation. Through the final 7:46 of play, the team scored just five points and were unable to finish out the game. And again, it’s not clear what the underlying issues are. “It’s frustrating,” Champagnie admitted, but quenched concerns about a disappointed locker room. “The mindset doesn’t change game-to-game,” he continued. “Our mind is on winning the basketball game.” 

That mindset hasn’t resulted in wins when it mattered most, as St. John’s has just one Quad 1 victory this season, despite playing in close games with the league’s top teams. At times, Alexander, Champagnie and Aaron Wheeler have had flashes of greatness, but they haven’t coincided. More often than not, St. John’s is struggling to execute on the basics — like free throws, rebounds, and efficient shooting — so taking on the best conference in the country has been an impossible task.