At this point, it isn’t about whether St. John’s can pick itself off the mat. It has proven to have a rubber jaw. It’s about how much ferocity the Red Storm will have when they bounce back up.
The Johnnies have responded to adversity all year, playing their best under the most adverse situations. Saturday night’s 81-71 victory over Seton Hall at Carnesecca Arena, however, was their most impressive feat yet.
St. John’s trailed 18-0 less than seven minutes in and was playing without star point guard Posh Alexander (sprained thumb). It would’ve been easy to fold. But this team didn’t break.
St. John’s kept fighting and attacking, and outscored Seton Hall by a stunning 28 points the rest of the way, winning going away to snap a three-game losing streak to its local rival and send the Pirates to a fourth straight defeat.
“We definitely have a different culture, and I think [we’re in] a good direction moving forward,” junior Greg Williams Jr. said.
With the come-from-behind victory, the Red Storm (16-10, 10-9 Big East) clinched the fourth seed in the upcoming conference tournament and a winning league season for the first time in six years. A win or two at the Garden next week — St. John’s will meet No. 5 Seton Hall at 3 p.m. Thursday in the quarterfinals — and the NCAA Tournament could be back in play.
Without Alexander and with Isaih Moore (“coach’s decision”) benched for all but three minutes, coach Mike Anderson went deep into his bench with sterling results. His reserves produced 33 points, including 14 from freshman Dylan Addae-Wusu and 12 from Marcellus Earlington. Seldom-used backups Arnaldo Toro and John McGriff provided key minutes, particularly on the defensive end.
The team’s one constant, Big East leading scorer Julian Champagnie, remained just that, notching 22 points, six rebounds and two steals. Williams and Rasheem Dunn each had five assists and five rebounds while combining for 18 points.
“I think that when adversity hits, we stay together,” Williams said. “We didn’t bicker as much at each other or anything like that. We just kept being positive and trying to make a difference in the game.”
St. John’s outrebounded much bigger Seton Hall, 33-32, and torched the Pirates in transition. The Johnnies limited Pirates senior star Sandro Mamukelashvili to 15 points, 17 fewer than he produced in the first meeting between the two teams, a Seton Hall victory. Mamukelashvili also had 10 rebounds, while Shavar Reynolds added 13 points for Seton Hall (13-12, 10-9).
The first half was bizarre. St. John’s was as cold from the start as Seton Hall was hot, missing its first 10 shots from the field. The Pirates were up 18-0 — that’s not a misprint — before the Red Storm knew what hit them.
But from there, the team that played so well late this year, that overwhelmed Providence in the second half on Wednesday, resurfaced. St. John’s trailed by just 10 at halftime and dominated the second half, scoring 26 of the first 34 points after intermission. St. John’s shot 66 percent over the final 20 minutes, producing 50 second-half points for the second straight game and nearly forcing as many turnovers (seven) as made field goals it allowed (11).
“Our guys played like it was their last game of the season,” Anderson said.
It of course wasn’t. Next up is the Big East Tournament. St. John’s felt it was ready to make a big run last year, leading top-seeded Creighton at halftime of the quarterfinals before COVID-19 led to the entire postseason getting canceled. Now the Johnnies will be back at the Garden with a chance to finish what they started.
“We have looked forward to this moment,” Williams said, “this whole year.”