Rick Pitino sat in his living room despondent. A surprising 86-80 loss to Boston College further exposed the Red Storm’s lingering defensive troubles and inability to comprehend scouting. Needing a lift to his spirits, he orders a pizza. Unbeknownst to him, Joel Soriano, Daniss Jenkins, and Chris Ledlum are on their way to his Winged Foot home to cheer up their coach. The trio arrives at the door at the same time as the delivery man and walk in with the pizza.
“I really appreciated that. Rather than the coach thinking the players were down and thinking we have to build them up, they went the other way,” Pitino said in his Friday media availability, “You don’t see guys drive 45 minutes to try and cheer a coach up.”
Today, those Red Storm players delivered on the court with an overwhelming 77-55 win. The Rams were overwhelmed from the opening tip-off, as the Red Storm shut the paint down under lock and key. Joel Soriano logged a comfortable 20 points and 10 rebounds against his former squad. His biggest highlight came at the ten-minute mark, when Fordham caught St. John’s asleep off the inbound and Will Richardson had an easy bee-line to the basket. Unfortunately for him, Joel Soriano delivered a soul-snatching chasedown block on his layup attempt.
Pitino made a stunning decision with his starting lineups, swapping reserve Sean Conway in for nightly starter Jordan Dingle in his starting five today. That change of pace boded well for St. John’s, with Conway picking up two steals and playing solid defense and Dingle supplying 8 points on 3-for-5 shooting off the bench.
“Physically, we’re a weak basketball team at a lot of positions,” Pitino said, “That’s why I like Conway out there, because he’s not afraid to get physical.”
The Red Storm’s first half wasn’t without its warts. They shot 2-for-7 from the free throw line in the first half, including front end misses on three one-and-one free throws. The Rams showed life near the halftime buzzer, receiving support from the small, but vociferous contingent of maroon-donning fans. That energy from the Fordham faithful was enough to trim their halftime deficit to 11, as Soriano went to the bench with two fouls in the final 90 seconds.
Fordham carried that burst of momentum into the second half, even whittling their lead down to nine, but St. John’s quickly responded and built a 53-35 lead with 13 minutes to go in the second half, with a Chris Ledlum reverse slam dunk serving as an exclamation point in the middle of their run.
CHRIS LEDLUM GET UPPP pic.twitter.com/Hj39Q9Vq13— St. John's Men’s Basketball (@StJohnsBBall) December 16, 2023
Apart from a dust-up under the basket that resulted in technicals to Chris Ledlum and Antrell Charlton, it was an otherwise academic second half for St. John’s. Fordham simply lacked the dynamic playmakers to start an extended run. The Rams shot 25 percent from the field, 2-for-18 from three, and if it weren’t for an uncharacteristically great 23-of-26 night from the charity stripe, this would have been a monumental clubbing by the Red Storm. Once again, Rick Pitino wasn’t completely sold on the performance.
“We just foul too much. We’ve been fouling too much, and not good fouls,” said Pitino, “If we don’t take care of the basketball and play much better defense without fouling, Xavier will beat us. But we took baby steps tonight, and that’s what I wanted to see.”
That amount of separation allowed St. John’s to give their reserves more run in the late proceedings of this contest, as none of the starters recorded more than 27 minutes of playing time.
Now with a record of 7-3, St. John’s is set to open their Big East season on Wednesday night against the Xavier Musketeers at Carnesecca Arena. Pitino was effusive in his praise for head coach Sean Miller during his postgame press conference, calling him one of the best coaches in the nation, but he knows the energy in Carnesecca Arena is different.
“Although our fans were great today, Carnesecca (Arena) is a tough place to play as I’m finding out,” Pitino said, “We’re trying to be America’s team, hitting every arena in the New York area.”