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Three takeaways: Curbelo leads Johnnies to dramatic Empire Classic victories, defense steps up

A team effort finds Soriano dominating and the defense making big plays late in games.

NCAA Basketball: Empire Classic Championship Game-St. John at Syracuse Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

If you wanted drama, you certainly got it at the Barclay Center in Brooklyn with St. John’s, Syracuse, Temple and Richmond squaring off in a two-day tournament — the JOhnnies’ first true tests of the season.

The first game against the Temple Owls came down to the wire with transfer guard Andre Curbelo hitting two driving layups in the last minute of play to lead the Red Storm to victory.

On Day Two, November 22, 2022, the Barclays Center was flooded with Red Storm fans in red and Syracuse fans in orange. Brightly clad fans anticipated a battle between long-time Big East foes and they got it.

First Half

St. John’s came out in warm ups with a serious tone, hoping to undo a pattern of slow starts. Flashy dunks were replaced with a focus on long-range shooting and layup drills. Posh Alexander was 15-18 foot jumpers during the warm up. Rafael Pinzon was hitting jumpers as well.

The fans were ready, starting the “let’s go Red Storm chants in the last five minutes of the Consolation game earlier in the evening.

Syracuse won the opening tap and scored first on a Chris Bell jumper. In response, St. John’s began the night with two turnovers. David Jones then hit Montez Mathis cutting to the basket, who drew a foul from 6’11” senior Jesse Edwards. The usually reliable senior Mathis missed both free throws. An ominous start for the Red Storm — though picking up fouls on Edwards would play a role later in the contest.

Andre Curbelo rebounded a Jones miss, drove to the hoop and was fouled. Making both foul shots, he was on his way to a 23-point effort. The Orange led 4-2 at the 17:07 mark.

A minute later fans saw a combination that would repeat itself throughout the game — a Posh Alexander drive into the Syracuse zone and, as the Orange collapsed to cover him, a quick pass to Joel Soriano cutting to the basket for a dunk.

The Red Storm was ahead at the 16 minute mark, but fell victim to a Syracuse 12-1 run.

During these four and a-half minutes, the Red Storm had four turnovers, three missed layups, two missed mid-range jumpers, two missed three-point attempts and Soriano made one out of two foul opportunities to keep the Orange from a true shutout. Fans reminded themselves that poor play had always brought on a more determined effort from the Johnnies this season.

Not all was terrible. St. John’s was outshooting the Orange, but their shot blockers were making a difference.

Coach Anderson noted a weakness in the Syracuse zone and began having Alexander and Curbelo rotate across the foul line, taking feeds from teammates and, as the Syracuse zone collapsed to cover them, they would pass out to wings. But Alexander saw something else on the play. Faking a pass to the wings, he calmly hit a pull-up 10-footer. It was an opening the Johnnies would take advantage of as the game progressed.

The Syracuse lead rotated between six and 10 for most of the half until the last few seconds. The Johnnies had the ball with 31 seconds to play and were holding it for a last shot in the half. They played the remaining seconds perfectly – almost. With eight seconds in the half Curbelo hit a three from the left wing and the Red Storm were down by three.

But there were still eight seconds to play.

Freshman guard Judah Mintz, who would score 16 points in the half, saw an inattentive Red Storm defense and raced down the left side. Coach Anderson jumped off the bench, pointing and yelling but it was too late. A breakaway layup and a late foul by Soriano led to, once again, a deficit of six.


Curbelo led the Red Storm with 10 points at the half including 2/2 from three-point land. Soriano was second with nine points and was drawing fouls on Syracuse big men.

For the Orange Mintz led the way with 16 on 6/13 shooting. He displayed a quickness that the Red Storm had trouble defending. Interestingly, senior and leading scorer Joseph Girard had no points. It was clear that Coach Anderson and the team had to come out with a plan to contain Mintz.

Second Half

For the first three minutes the teams played to a draw with Girard beginning to contribute. Then something happened. First a 10-3 run for Syracuse opened up a 50-40 lead with 15 minutes to play. The Johnnie press was ineffective. The Orange were well prepared for it.

Curbelo’s third three of the game broke the run and the Johnnies were down by seven. The Johnnies changed their defense. There was a press but simply to slow the man bringing the ball up. No more double teams when the Orange took the ball out. Johnnie defenders were waiting at the half court line for tight man-to-man pressure. It worked.

With 17 minutes to play, Mintz had 20 points for the game. He would not score again with Alexander hounding him every time he got the ball.

Mathis and defensive specialist Dylan Addae-Wusu hounded Girard, shutting him out for the rest of the game. Jesse Edwards picked up his fourth foul, and the Red Storm were on the way to a 16-2 run to take a 56 to 52 lead on two Mathis free throws.

At the 7:58 official timeout, the loudspeaker started playing Sweet Caroline and suddenly, with the Johnnies in the lead for the first time since very early in the game, fans were chiming in “good times never seemed so good… so good!… so good!... so good!” It was a magical moment for Johnnie fans.

Give the Orange credit. Shortly after the timeout, Edwards returned and asserted himself down deep, scoring six points and bringing the Orange back to a tie at 65-65 with 1:35 to play.

After a Jones miss Syracuse got the ball with 1:15 to play and a chance to retake the lead. Orange fans joined Red Storm fans on their feet. Determined Johnnies waited at midcourt to pick up their man. They were not going to allow an easy Syracuse shot. What happened was even better. They did not allow any shots at all and the Orange committed a 30-second violation. The game went into overtime.


Long Island Railroad trains were held up at Atlantic Terminal for fans now destined to get out of the game late. Syracuse won the center jump and it happened again. Wusu was inserted for defensive purposes and the Johnnies held for a second 30 second violation on the Orange. A Jones layup was followed by an Edwards layup, halfway through the overtime. A tie score. Would there be a second overtime? Would the LIRR trains wait even longer?

Jones and Curbelo scored five points in the last minute, leading the Johnnies to a hard-fought 76-69 victory — and sending the trains out, to bring the Nassau and Suffolk Red Storm fans home with a smile.

NCAA Basketball: Empire Classic Championship Game-St. John at Syracuse Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Three Takeaways

Andre Curbelo coming of age

Curbelo had a career-high 23 points along with six assists and four steals as he led the Johnnies to their overtime win over Syracuse. His three for three on three-point attempts left hope that he may develop into the long-range, reliable threat for the Red Storm when the need exists.

Curbelo stepped into a role of taking passes near the foul line and looking to pass to teammates on the wings. He recognized the opportunity to take uncontested jumpers from 10-15 feet out and was successful, particularly during the second half run when the Johnnies took the lead.

Soriano dominating

Soriano scored a career high 19 points and took down 14 rebounds against an Orange frontline that featured two 6’11’ players. Soriano managed this production against a Syracuse zone which often collapsed down upon him. He had two blocks and made senior Jesse Edwards work hard for his 18 points.

If Soriano can be this productive against a frontline of Edwards and 6’ 11” Mounir Hima, who had seven blocks, Johnnies followers can feel optimism that he will have a productive year with several double-doubles ahead.

Second Half Defense

The Johnnies had only three steals in the first half. The Syracuse Orange prepared for the Red Storm pressure and traps, clearly.

What they were not ready for was the intense man-to-man coverage by all Red Storm players, starters and reserves.

Judah Mintz was outstanding in the first half but held in check by several Johnnie defenders in the second half. Leading scorer Joe Girard was held to four points for the entire game.

At the end of the second half and the beginning of the overtime the Red Storm defense was so effective that on two occasions the Orangemen did not even get a shot off.

There have been times this season that the full court, double teaming defense was effective, speeding up the game and causing turnovers. Well-coached, high level talent teams like Syracuse come prepared. Today the secret was to slow down the player bringing the ball up and be ready to make entry passes difficult.

There were few open looks for the Orangemen, particularly in the second half and in the overtime period.


Jubilant St. John’s fans met outside the Long Island Railroad terminal waiting for the train to arrive. Many others expressed optimism that maybe, this is a year the Red Storm can make it back to Friday night of the Big East Tournament. Some even suggested a Big East championship but, all knew, there will be several formidable foes, particularly Creighton.

Fans are impressed with two wins over top 100 teams in the last two days.

The fact that the team has several “go to” guys, unlike past years when one or two were expected to be the shot makers at the end brought confidence.

The fact that the team is winning close games with timely shooting but also intense, determined defense suggests this year’s team may be ready to make the next step.

Coach Anderson declared this to be the most talented team he has had at St. John’s and this championship in the Empire Classic suggests that he may be right.

The team needs to continue to focus and have no letdowns in concentration and effort.