The question fans were raising at the onset of the play-in game of the 2022 Big East Tournament game against DePaul was: which Johnnies team would show up?
Would it be the team which won eight league games by an average of 15 points per win... or the team that lost eleven league games by an average of 8 points per game? (If the 23-point loss to Creighton in mid January was taken away, the losses of the other 10 games were by an average of 5.4 points.)
St. John’s – DePaul: March 9
It took three minutes for the Johnnies team to focus on the mission at hand as DePaul jumped out to a 12-2 lead.
But Dylan Addae-Wasu and Montez Mathis entered the game and the defense tightened. Esahia Nyiwe entered the game and the Johnnies run continued buoyed by several Nyiwe rebounds. At the 12:34 mark Mathis hit a three from the left wing tying the score at fourteen.
The Johnnies defense tightened, focused on containing Javon Freeman-Liberty, who had recently torched them for 39 points in a win for DePaul on February 27. Though he did score throughout the game, it was exclusively on drives to the basket. There were to be no open three-point shots that were easily taken and made in the previous game, and the Johnnies were off.
It is noted that in the last seventeen minutes the tightened Red Storm defense held the Blue Demons to 17 points. The Johnnies were picking up DePaul attackers aggressively all over the half court and the Blue Demons managed only one successful three pointer in 10 tries.
In the second half the Johnnies continued the game plan and cruised to a 92-73 victory.
St. John’s – Villanova: March 10
Was the pattern of a strong performance followed by a weaker one that had dominated the Johnnies season going to continue into the tournament?
Cautious optimism from some was mixed with a jubilant sense that a victory over eighth ranked Villanova was possible from the fans. It took a long time for the Garden to clean up the arena after the early afternoon doubleheader so at game time, despite an announcement that the two evening games sold the Garden out, seats were not yet filled. By 10 minutes into the game there were no empty seats.
Unlike the game the night before against DePaul, the Johnnies did not start slowly. Coach Anderson returned to a starting lineup of Mathis, Champagnie, Alexander, Soriano and Wheeler, the most common lineup he had used to start games throughout the second half of the year. They started fast. Stef Smith came out, with “ice in his veins” according to one fan, and extended the lead.
It was apparent that St. Johns was bringing their “A” game for a second night in a row.
Like any veteran team, the Wildcats noted a weakness in the Johnnies defense as guard Caleb Daniels was freeing himself for corner jump shots. After his third three cut the Red Storm lead to 19-16, 20 seconds later a Mathis three extended the lead to 22-16. As Villanova took the ball out under its basket, Alexander dropped back to shadow Daniels and Champagnie and Mathis trapped Villanova guard Colin Gillespie. Champagnie stole the ball and laid the ball in for a 24-16 lead. Johnnies fans rose to their feet, cheering loudly. The Johnnies were clearly ready for the evening’s challenge.
By the end of the half, the Johnnies held a seven point lead.
In the second half, the Johnnies took the ball out. Soon, an Alexander steal and a feed to Champagnie for a layup extended the lead to 34-23. The Johnnies were not simply competing. They were “rollin’”.
The roll continued as the Wildcats kept fighting. But then, Alexander was called on a charge and was removed from the game with three fouls. He had been quite the court general throughout the game and had added a jump shot to give the Johnnies a versatile offensive attack.
With Alexander out Villanova rapidly closed the gap with timely shooting and three Johnnies turnovers. When he returned the lead was down to one.
But the Johnnies kept fighting. Nothing on the offensive end was coming easy for either team. The Red Storm retook the lead on a Smith layup and free throw with 2:08 to play. Over the next 2:06 neither team scored. It was a defensive clinic.
With 22 seconds to play Villanova called timeout. Determined Johnnie defenders came out to defend. Colin Gillespie brought the ball up closely guarded by Johnnies. He could not shake himself free. With less than 10 seconds to play he fed Samuels who drove to the basket. Samuels short jumper was blocked by Wheeler. Four seconds to play. Brandon Slater grabbed the loose ball and attacked. One more stop and the Johnnies would have a well earned victory.
But one last stop was not to be. Slater missed the shot but was fouled by Champagnie. After a Johnnies time out and with everyone on their feet Slater hit two foul shots. A desperation heave from midcourt by Smith had the length but was off to the left and the Johnnies tournament hopes were over.
The Johnnies were Prepared and Ready
With the exception of the first three minutes of the DePaul game, the Johnnies implemented game plans that worked. The Johnnies kept Javon Freeman-Liberty from taking over the game and scoring at will as he did in the team’s previous encounter.
In the quarter-final game against Villanova the Red Storm kept to the plan, which featured working off center Joel Soriano for easy baskets. Soriano also was adept at feeding teammates for layups. Champagnie and, at times, Alexander and Smith, were hitting from outside.
When Alexander went out for several minutes his teammates struggled. Villanova took away the plays into the low post which the Johnnies continued to seek.
With Alexander back in the Johnnies adjusted more successfully and made it a game. Credit the Villanova defense. In crunch time they stepped up. So did the Johnnies. But sometimes the ball bounces into an opponent’s hands despite good defense.
Big Men Continue to Play Well
For segments of both games the Johnnies played very successfully off of Joel Soriano. He scored fourteen points and assisted on several drives to the basket by teammates. In the DePaul game his hook shot was not blockable by opponents. Soriano is a junior and his progress this year speaks optimistically for further improvement in the future.
Esahia Nyiwe showed significant progress as the season moved forward. Nyiwe was always a defensive force but began to score a bit down the stretch. He has a nice mid range jump shot and is limber enough around the basket to take offensive rebounds and put them back for baskets. During the Villanova run in the second half of the game, it was a Nyiwe put back that stemmed the tide and kept the Johnnies within reach and the opportunity to take the lead back.
Most impressive about Nyiwe is his quickness on defensive and his timeliness in defending. While he may not block a lot of shots his defensive quickness and length disrupts shots. A bright future is ahead if Nyiwe can continue to develop his offensive skills and spend some time in the weight room to build up his slender frame.
Champagnie and Alexander
Everyone stepped up at the end, but none more than leaders Julian Champagnie and Posh Alexander.
Champagnie led the team with nine rebounds. He scored 23 points, had one block, four steals, three assists and only one turnover against the number eight team in the country. It was a remarkable performance.
Alexander, out of the game for several minutes in the second half due to foul trouble, was harassing the Wildcats all night on defense, drawing charges, making steals. He had five assists and even began hitting jumpers. Having the ball on most offensive sequences, Alexander had only two turnovers.
Was this game the last time Red Storm fans see the two on the court together again?
The St. John’s Fans
The energy at the Big East tournament was fantastic. Energy from Villanova, Uconn and Providence fans rattled the Garden. Having attended all of the games I can attest that there is really nothing like this tournament. Even though the Red Storm was eliminated it was a joy to watch every game for the atmosphere.
The St. John’s team was talked about by non St. John’s fans. They were impressed with the Johnnies performance, particularly in the one point loss to Villanova. The team represented the school well.
So what was lacking? The energy fans displayed at many home games, particularly at Carnesecca Arena was rarely heard. When squads from Villanova, UConn, Seton Hall, Providence, even far away schools Butler and Creighton, were introduced there was cheers from the stands. Yet when the Red Storm team was introduced at the beginning of the Villanova game, they were greeted by cheerleaders and the band played but barely a whimper from the stands.
Did the Johnnies earn an NIT invitation? With victories and advancement there may be several more times to see this team of guys who never give up. We can only hope and, if the opportunity arises, this 2021-22 version of the St. John’s Red Storm is a team to continue to be proud of.