A strong conference start was vital for a St. John’s team with NCAA tournament aspirations, and they got exactly what they needed on Wednesday night with a commanding 81-66 win over Xavier.
It was a night of firsts for Rick Pitino: his first Big East game since he led Louisville to a Big East tournament championship in 2013, and the first time he ever coached against Sean Miller in his extensive career. In the first matchup of two of the game’s great coaches, Pitino and his Red Storm squad got the better of Miller’s Musketeers.
St. John’s never trailed in this game. They vaulted to a 12-3 start, and even when Xavier began to shake off the offensive butterflies, the Red Storm never wavered. Their press gave Xavier fits, forcing 18 total turnovers. The introduction of matchup zones stifled Xavier’s shifty dribble penetration, taking them out of rhythm for long stretches.
The foul troubles continued for St. John’s, giving up 18 fouls and 22 free throw attempts, but Xavier just could not generate any momentum to mount a comeback. The Musketeers shot a season-worst 19 percent from three (4-of-21). Quincy Olivari, the scoring dynamo who averaged 27 points a game in his last three games, was quenched early in the first half before he could catch fire. He only scored 13 points on just six attempts tonight.
Like Olivari, Joel Soriano was held to a quiet four-point first half. The only difference was Soriano came alive in the second stanza, totaling a team-high 18 points, 14 rebounds, and 6 blocks. His presence held Xavier’s four bigs (Ousmane, Ciani, Stefanovic, and Nemeikša) to a combined 5-of-23 shooting.
Joel Soriano also had a vendetta against the basket tonight.
It was also a collective effort for St. John’s. Nahiem Alleyne made his first start since opening night and he chipped in a season-high 15 points, draining multiple smooth mid-range jumpers and playing sound defense. Chris Ledlum was everywhere on the floor, literally, hitting the deck for loose balls and scrapping for boards. His performance had a little bit of everything, picking up 13 points, 6 rebounds, 2 blocks, and 3 steals. Daniss Jenkins and Jordan Dingle each scored in double-figures, and Glenn Taylor was active on the glass.
Coming up next for the Red Storm is a critical road game against No. 5 UConn on Saturday night in their first big network game of the season. In front of a national audience, St. John’s will have to battle with an angry Huskies squad that was upset by Seton Hall on the road tonight, 75-60.