St. John’s Defense Shuts Down Syracuse In Overtime To Win Empire Classic Championship, 76-69

The Red Storm initially struggled to overcome the Orange’s zone defense. But in the end, it was the Johnnies’ own defense that prevailed.

Torch Photo / Sara Kiernan

The St. John’s Men’s Basketball team overcame their offensive struggles against an effective Syracuse zone defense to win the Empire Classic championship in overtime, 76-69, at the Barclays Center on Tuesday, Nov. 22. Following the win against the old-Big East rival, the Johnnies moved to 6-0 on the season and showcased their late-game prowess.

The game started just like any other Red Storm basketball game — with slow and inefficient play from the Red Storm. Syracuse employed their zone defense in an attempt to thwart the Johnnies’ fast-paced offense, and for the better part of the game, it worked. 

St. John’s failed to find a consistent rhythm through regulation. Although the team trimmed the Orange lead at times, never letting Syracuse pull away, the Red Storm never fully closed the gap in the first half. With less than eight minutes remaining in the opening period, the team had just four made field goals on 19 shots.

More importantly, Syracuse was playing up to the Johnnies’ speed, and they were doing it well. That forced St. John’s to rush their ball movement, resulting in nine first-half turnovers that led to eight Syracuse points. 

When the two teams returned from the locker rooms, the Johnnies’ play didn’t look much better. Syracuse extended their lead to ten points quickly in the second half, and St. John’s had trouble keeping up. 

But throughout the entire game, the Red Storm’s prophecy remained in the background. Their early-season trend of overcoming obstacles and erasing deficits had become hard to ignore. “[Syracuse] came out and had us down early in the game, but we know that our tendency right now is to be a second half team,” said head coach Mike Anderson in a postgame media conference. “We’ve played some of our better basketball [in the second half].”

With roughly ten minutes remaining in the second half, the Johnnies began to close the gap. Junior forward David Jones finally broke the barrier with a forceful drive to the basket, securing the bucket and the foul, putting the finishing touches on a 16-2 scoring run. After Jones knocked down the free throw, St. John’s retook the lead and never relinquished it. 

The finish wasn’t without dramatics. Syracuse tied the game at 65 with 1:38 remaining in regulation, and neither team scored in the final minutes. The Red Storm defense kept the team in the game, and didn’t let the Orange get a good look before the buzzer, forcing overtime. “We just tried to keep spacing and be aware of the shooters,” Anderson said. “I’m not married to one system, I’m married to winning.”

Torch Photo / Sara Kiernan

Junior point guard Andre Curbelo proved to be clutch in the added time, creating a steal in the game’s last moments and scoring a career-high 23 points. Jones sealed the win with one, final blow — a corner three-pointer that put the Johnnies up by seven. 

“They’re not scared of big moments. They both like that [pressure],” Anderson said of Curbelo and Jones. “That has been trickling through our basketball team.”

Senior center Joel Soriano led the team’s paint presence with 19 points and 14 rebounds, which earned him his fifth double-double in six games, a figure that leads the NCAA. 

Fans and experts alike have been waiting for the Red Storm’s slow starts to catch up to them, and they’ll have to wait longer. St. John’s, who have faced double-digit deficits in each of their last three games, refuse to back down. 

Part of this team’s identity is to be the last team standing. They did just that on Monday against Temple, setting the stage for the championship thriller Tuesday. The team pulled off an even more impressive come-from-behind victory in the Empire Classic title game.

“I think it was a great team win,” Curbelo said. “As the games go by, we continue to get better down the stretch and we are going to use that second half and make it better in both halves.”

It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. And following a Tuesday night overtime win against Syracuse, the St. John’s Men’s Basketball team has finished with six wins and a championship trophy to begin their 2022-23 season.

Torch Photo / Sara Kiernan