Chris Mullin notched his first signature win as head coach of St. John's on Sunday against Syracuse, but the biggest storyline came from the unexpected production off the bench from sophomore Amar Alibegovic.
Alibegovic scored 15 points (second most in his career), drilled three three's, grabbed nine rebounds and had an impressive put-back dunk that sent the crowd at Madison Square Garden into a frenzy. In the middle of the opening half, the "Italian Stallion," as FOX Sports' Gus Johnson likes to say, added seven points in a span of less than three minutes, forcing Syracuse interim coach Mike Hopkins to call a quick timeout with the Red Storm lead up seven.
"It's been some time since I've played like this," Alibegovic said following the victory. "(My emotions) were just coming out all at once."
The sophomore was quiet to begin the second stanza until it felt like the Orange were inching back into the game. That's when Alibegovic hit two clutch threes and celebrated with Carmelo Anthony's signature "Three to the Head," giving the Johnnies a 13-point advantage and plenty of momentum before the under eight minute media timeout.
Sure, Alibegovic put up 17 points against Chaminade in the Maui Invitational and is averaging more points and minutes per game this season, but no one expected this type of production. Not on the biggest stage of the non-conference schedule and certainly not against a Syracuse team that he only played four minutes against last year.
Despite producing zero points and watching his teammates upset the Orange at the Carrier Dome in 2014, Alibegovic benefited greatly from that experience and carried over some of the knowledge from the team's preparation.
"I recognized how these guys played," the Italian forward said. "Like (Trevor) Cooney especially. We focused on him a lot last year. I just started from the defensive end and I did the basic things they tell me to do. (Also) the zone gave me some opportunities for offensive rebounds and to shoot the ball. That's one of my strengths."
With Syracuse possessing plenty of length at the top of their defense, Alibegovic's size and ability to make shots from the wing was a valuable match-up advantage. But most importantly he played with purpose, fearlessness, confidence and toughness, something that the forward used to stay on the floor down the stretch over Felix Balamou and others.
That effort and passion was on full display for one afternoon but Mullin sees it every day, which could help Alibegovic develop a larger role moving forward.
"He's worked really really hard, Mullin said. "As hard as anybody. It's more about him getting experience. Practice is important and he's done pretty well. He had a nice game in Hawaii (17 points against Chaminade) so I think it's there. We see it."
If the "Italian Stallion" can build on this unexpected outing and transform his skills into production against man-to-man defenses and more high level competition, the Johnnies could have another improving weapon to unleash off the bench in Big East Conference play.
"I've been given the opportunities," Alibegovic said. "I'm starting to use them to my advantage and I have to keep it up like this and be consistent."