Champagnie Centerstage: Johnnies Destroy Blue Demons, Advance to Big East Quarterfinals

Day One in the Garden: Finding Power in the Paint, Champagnie Scores 24 in 92-73 Blowout

Torch Photo /

Sara Kiernan

Torch Photo /

NEW YORK, NY — St. John’s pummeled DePaul in a tremendous post-season performance, 92-73, in the opening round of the Big East Tournament on Wednesday, March 9. With stupendous defense and passing, boasting behind-the-back tosses and lob attempts, the team looked like the pressure of the conference tournament had not fazed them. Julian Champagnie — the star junior forward — stole the show, scoring 24 points to lead his team to an easy victory against a team they struggled with late in the season.

The Johnnies had 74 shot attempts, converted on 37, good for a 50 percent field goal percentage. Charging the rim, 11 dunks were pounded in by five Johnnies: Champagnie, Aaron Wheeler, Esahia Nyiwe, Montez Mathis and Joel Soriano. The St. John’s bench outscored their opponents 40-19, showing the depth of the team and the deadliness of those on-and-off the court. The ferocious effort from each player on the bench got the team going, according to head coach Mike Anderson in a post game media conference. “Anybody we brought off the bench, I thought they brought a certain swag, an energy and attack mode,” he said.

Esahia Nyiwe dunks against the Blue Demons in the Big East Tournament. (TORCH PHOTO/ Sara Kiernan)

In a physical battle that saw two of the best players on the team, Alexander and Champagnie, take a seat on the bench after injury scares, the team’s bench presence was all the more crucial. “Especially in March that’s really important because certain guys might go off, might not,” said Smith. “Someone might get hurt or something like that,” he added, “so it’s important that we have all hands on deck and when the number is called we play in the most efficient manner possible.” 

St. John’s defense proved deadly to DePaul, forcing 15 turnovers from the Blue Demons, with only two turnovers surrendered despite the team’s speedy pace of play. Although they’ve certainly faced adversity throughout the season, the Johnnies have the highest scoring offense in the Big East. This drastic drop is a mammoth 10 turnovers less than their season average. The reward for this defensive performance? 24 points scored off turnovers, with DePaul not able to capitalize on the few St. John’s turnovers.

While the end result shows a blowout, the Red Storm gave fans a scare with an abysmal start. Poor defense in the paint put St. John’s down by six in the first minute of play with no response, as St. John’s attempted three-pointers to no avail. A score in the paint by Tareq Coburn, who received a third straight start, put the Johnnies on the board, which remained their only basket in the first four minutes of play. 

After a timeout, however, St. John’s went on a 9-0  run, with work in the paint by Champagnie and stronger defense from the entire team. “I thought our intensity picked up,” Anderson said. “That’s what, as a team, you’ve got to find somebody to help ignite that.” A three-pointer from Mathis  — after a miss from a dunk attempt —  tied the game at 14 with 12 minutes in the half. It took ten minutes to erase the early deficit, and the team never looked back. 

Posh Alexander moves under the basket against DePaul defenders. (TORCH PHOTO/ Sara Kiernan)

Despite an injury scare from starting point guard Posh Alexander, who has struggled with lower leg injuries all season, the sophomore remained on the bench and returned to the court to find his energetic team keeping them ahead. The first half ended with St. John’s leading by 20, 49-20. They kept that lead throughout the rest of the game.

Champagnie kept a hot hand the whole performance, shooting 50 percent from the field and converting on three shots from beyond the arch in seven attempts. Once the team identified that the All-Big East talent had found his stroke, the primary ball handlers continually found Champagnie open shots.

“It’s unbelievable to watch and you’ve got to make sure, as his teammate, to get him the ball,” said Smith. “And we did a really good job doing that. And we understand that he’s going to have those nights. And sometimes he might not have those nights because teams are going to focus their defense on him. We’ve just got to step up and make sure we make plays as well.”

Up next for the Johnnies is No. 2 Villanova (AP No. 8) in the Quarterfinal Round of the conference tournament. In their last contest against the Wildcats on Feb.8, the Red Storm were unable to overcome the loss of starting point guard Alexander, losing 75-69 after fighting to erase a 20 point deficit. 

“There’s a reason why they’re one of the top ten teams in the country,” Anderson said. “So it’s a great challenge, great opportunity. And you’re playing for an opportunity to play in [the] postseason. Our attention is next team up, we’ve got to be ready.”