Red Storm Unable To Close Out Whiteout Game, Fall To Creighton, 81-78

National Player of the Week Julian Champagnie couldn’t find his stroke in the pivotal contest.

No. 23 Montez Mathis drives to the basket on his way to a team-high 15 points.

TORCH PHOTO/ Sara Kiernan

No. 23 Montez Mathis drives to the basket on his way to a team-high 15 points.

QUEENS, NY — In a tale that has become all too familiar for Red Storm fans this season, the Men’s Basketball team was unable to close out a must-win game despite leading with just over three minutes remaining in regulation. The team failed to score again for nearly three minutes, culminating in the 81-78 loss to Creighton on Wednesday, Feb. 23 at Carnesecca Arena.  

The game was an uphill battle from the start, as junior forward Joel Soriano walked gingerly onto the court for the team’s pregame shootaround. Shortly before gametime, it was confirmed that Soriano would be unavailable with a left-knee contusion. Against a Creighton team with formidable bigs that can finish under the basket, Soriano’s absence set the Red Storm back before the game had even tipped off. 

Those fears came to fruition early in the first half, as Creighton’s seven-footer Ryan Kalkbrenner dominated in the paint on both ends of the court. Ryan Hawkins, a forward who played an impressive 37 minutes, also added size for the Blue Jays and secured rebounds on the glass. All that resulted in the Johnnies staring down a ten-point deficit early in the first half. 

A quick adjustment by St. John’s, highlighted by a four-guard lineup, shifted the momentum towards the Johnnies. Over the last eight minutes of the first half, St. John’s outscored Creighton by a 27-11 margin. The run was led by O’Mar Stanley, who gave the team his best scoring performance of the year. 

Mathis takes a free throw in front of an energized St. John’s crowd. (TORCH PHOTO/ Sara Kiernan)

St. John’s fans were out in full force for the program’s whiteout game, providing a high-energy atmosphere for an uptempo team. The spectators were eager to show their support as the Johnnies charged back into the game, and their displeasure at calls by officials. All of that contributed to one of the most dominant finishes to a half all season.  

“He has a high-motor, probably [one of] the highest motors of anyone I’ve ever played with,” said guard Stef Smith in a postgame media conference. “Today, he stepped up, obviously Joel [Soriano] was out and we needed some more scoring and that’s what he did today.” Stanley found himself in foul trouble in the first half, which limited his impact on the game. In just 12 minutes, the forward scored 14 points, a career-high in Big East play. 

O’Mar Stanley, who matched his career-high with 14 points, dribbles against Creighton.  (TORCH PHOTO/ Sara Kiernan )

The smaller lineup of shooters created space for guards like Smith and Mathis to drive in the paint, easing the team’s earlier pains under the basket. Overall, it’s clear the game plan was to prioritize shots in the paint over deep shots, especially when two of the team’s top shooters went cold. “That’s hard to overcome,” head coach Mike Anderson said on Champagnie and Aaron Wheeler’s struggles offensively — the two combined to shoot 4-26 from the floor. 

In crunch time, when the Johnnies continued to falter, Champagnie was unable to step up and make a key shot. The reigning National Player of the Week further cemented his inconsistent junior season, scoring just three points in the second half and eight on the night. St. John’s has a handful of players that can drop 30 points in any given contest, but none of them can do so with any semblance of consistency. 

The turning point of the game came with 12 minutes remaining, when Creighton’s starting point guard was forced to leave the game with a wrist injury. Ryan Nembhard was heard audibly claiming “it’s broken,” in reference to the injury, and was eventually taken to an area hospital, where Creighton confirmed a broken wrist would end his season. But his replacement, Trey Alexander, filled Nembhard’s shoes with immense poise in a second half that saw him play a full 20 minutes. 

Within four minutes of Trey Alexander stepping into the point guard role, Creighton retook the lead with timely shots. Though the Johnnies played close down the stretch, the Blue Jays were executing key plays far better. “We’ve seen this throughout the course of the year, where we don’t make the proper plays going down the stretch,” Anderson said. “I don’t think we executed the things we wanted to.” 

St. John’s head coach Mike Alexander before Wednesday’s rematch with Creighton.
(TORCH PHOTO/ Sara Kiernan)

The final blow came with a scoring drought that lasted more than two minutes, after the Johnnies led by one point with 3:16 remaining. St. John’s surrendered four points in that stretch, and their offensive miscues manifested in a poorly-executed timeout call. With 50 seconds left in regulation, Alexander grabbed a rebound and dribbled the ball up the court, looking for the go-ahead to call a timeout. Anderson wasn’t looking at the court, and six seconds elapsed on the game clock before a timeout was eventually called. 

“The positive to this is that we know we can play with these teams if the game is this close,” Smith said of the team’s struggles late in games. “Going down the stretch and moving forward we just have to find a way to win, that’s what it comes down to.” 

St. John’s stayed in the game mathematically until the final seconds, but as has been the case all season, the clutch shot that could have secured a pivotal win eluded the team. Despite two chances to draw up a winning play, the offense fell short. “This one stings a lot,” Mathis said. “We just have to bounce back and keep our heads up.”

St. John’s has three regular-season games remaining, and all there is to play for is Big East Tournament seeding. That’s not to undermine the importance of these games — the conference is so competitive that dropping these would have a disastrous effect on seeding. The Johnnies will have to stay focused when they travel to DePaul on Sunday, Feb. 27, a team that has played — and lost — as many close games as the Red Storm this year.