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St. John's men's basketball cleans up its play to earn victory over Columbia

Rasheem Dunn #3 of St. John's is defended

Rasheem Dunn #3 of St. John's is defended by Mike Smith #21 of Columbia on Wednesday, Nov 20, 2019 at Carnesecca Arena. Credit: Steven Ryan

St. John’s got its first test of this young basketball season over the weekend in the form of a home game against a Vermont program that has been to two of the last three NCAA Tournaments. The Red Storm did not pass, losing by two.

On Wednesday night, St. John’s raced past Columbia for a 82-63 non-conference victory at Carnesecca Arena, turning the page on the loss, cleaning up a number of things it did poorly last weekend and gearing up for the biggest test of the season to date.

The Storm (4-1) will play a contest against the Arizona State team it faced in last season’s NCAA First Four on Saturday in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament at Mohegan Sun. In addition to being a measuring stick game because St. John’s is facing its first major, it has added intrigue because St. John’s unsuccessfully tried to coax Sun Devils coach Bobby Hurley to replace Chris Mullin before it ultimately hired Mike Anderson.

“I think it’ll be a great challenge,” said Mustapha Heron, who had a team-high 15 points. “Arizona State. There’s definitely has some history [after] losing to them last year. [Anderson] just said in the locker room it’s a new year and come out with a new mindset.”

Rasheem Dunn came off the bench to score all of his 14 points in the final 12 minutes off the first half as the Storm pulled away and turned it into a rout. The Cleveland State transfer has looked like a potential high-impact player in the two games since he got the NCAA waiver clearing him to play immediately. How long Anderson continues to use him off the bench remains to be seen, but he will continue to get starter’s minutes, Anderson said.

“The key is getting quality minutes and what you do with those minutes, but you can see how he just impacts our basketball team,” Anderson said. “He’s a threat offensively. He’s tenacious on defense. He’s like a lightning [bolt] out there as a matter of fact.”

Julian Champagnie added14 points and seven rebounds and Josh Roberts had 11 rebounds and three blocked shots for the Storm. Mike Smith had 20 points, nine rebounds and six assists for Columbia (1-4).

St. John’s had some work to do to get its house back in order after the Vermont game. The Storm missed a dozen free throws, shot very poorly from the floor and committed an unsightly 15 turnovers in the loss. Those were addressed against the Lions. St. John’s shot 47 percent on three-point attempts, was 13-for-19 on free throws and had just eight turnovers while forcing 18.

“We just approach this game differently, coming off a tough loss,” Rasheem Dunn said. “We had to just take our anger out. [Vermont] was a tough loss we dealt with and we felt we had to bounce back.”

“We cleaned up exactly what we needed to clean up,” Heron said

Doing those things better against Columbia — or even Vermont — may prove harder against Arizona State and the next day’s opponent, either defending national champ Virginia or UMass.

“In terms of whether we’ll be ready, we’re prepared for it,” Anderson said. “This is another test.”

Storm signs two: Guards Posh Alexander and Dylan Wusu, teammates at Our Saviour Lutheran High in the Bronx, have signed national letters of intent to play next season at St. John’s. Alexander is rated as the New York State’s fifth-ranked recruit and is averaging 18.5 points and 8.7 assists in four games this season after missing all of last season with a broken arm. Wusu is averaging 18.0 points and 5.2 assists. The Storm also will be adding juco transfers Vince Cole and Isaih Moore.

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