St. John’s Late-Game Push Propels 78-72 Empire Classic Win At The Barclays Center

It wasn’t their flashiest or most consistent win. But it might’ve been their most impressive one.

Torch Photo / Sara Kiernan

The Red Storm defeated Temple in Brooklyn on Monday night, 78-72, setting the stage for an old-Big East rivalry game with Syracuse for the Empire Classic Championship on Tuesday. Despite a back-and-forth contest that saw the Owls retake the lead with under two minutes of regulation left to play, the Johnnies held on to move to 5-0 on the young season. 

“It just shows that we’re getting better,” Mike Anderson said in a postgame media conference, referencing his team’s high-intensity effort to close out the game. “Adversity hit us and we were away from the confines of Carnesecca Arena, so I wanted to see how we’d react to it.”

As has been the trend so far this season, St. John’s came out of the locker room struggling in the first half. They were struggling to knock down shots from any part of the court — at one point, the team was 3-11 on layup attempts — and Temple started to build up a double-digit lead.

“We had a lot of moments when adversity hit us,” said senior center Joel Soriano. But the locker room leader says the team’s connectedness and winning mindset permeate regardless of the current game situation. “I love this team to death, I feel like we’re more unified than anything, and when we’re together I don’t feel like anything can break us.”

Initially, the game mirrored the team’s last contest against Nebraska, which saw the Johnnies go down by seven at halftime. The Red Storm turned that game around in the second half, but the team didn’t need a halftime reset to make critical adjustments. After successfully applying defensive pressure and converting shots at the basket, St. John’s went on a 20-5 scoring run to close out the first half with a 32-30 lead.

Joel Soriano celebrates against Temple.
Torch Photo / Sara Kiernan

The Red Storm continued their offensive and defensive success in the second half, but were unable to pull away from Temple after becoming entrenched in foul trouble. With roughly 15 minutes to play, Soriano was called for his third personal foul. Starters David Jones, Andre Curbelo and Montez Mathis had two fouls apiece on their ledger.

St. John’s held the game’s lead for most of the second half, but the momentum shifted back and forth throughout the final period. After a few questionable calls by the officials, Temple appeared poised to sneak away with the victory. 

Curbelo had something to say about that. Temple took the lead with under two minutes to play on a deep three-pointer, but Curbelo rushed down the court for a fast-break layup. After crashing into a photographer and taking a foul, the point guard knocked down the free throw to put the Johnnies ahead once again — giving the team a lead it would never relinquish. 

“We had a lot of heroes tonight,” Anderson said, gesturing to Curbelo and Soriano sitting beside him. Soriano led the team’s paint presence with 15 points and 12 rebounds, securing his fourth double-double in five games. Curbelo, of course, made up for a rough outing by closing out the game’s final minutes. 

When asked about his mindset during his two game-sealing plays, Curbelo provided two simple answers. “It’s game time,” he said. “It’s winning time.” 

“Making those kinds of plays are the difference between winning and losing,” Anderson said. “You’ve got to be able to execute as well.” 

The victory in Brooklyn wasn’t the team’s flashiest win this season. It wasn’t their largest margin of victory this season, and it certainly wasn’t their best offensive performance this season. Nonetheless, it might have been the team’s most important win thus far.

Last season, the Red Storm missed the NCAA tournament (and the NIT) in part because of their inability to get the last word in close games. The team was 4-9 in contests that were decided by six points or less.

Tonight, despite their struggles, found a way to come out on top. Eventually, their late-game heroics can’t be reduced to coincidences — they’re forming a pattern.

“If there’s a half you want to win,” Anderson says, “it’s the second half.”

The St. John’s Men’s Basketball team quickly returns to action Nov. 22 at the Barclays Center, looking to capture the Empire Classic championship against old-Big East rival Syracuse at 9 p.m.