The St. John’s defense hasn’t exactly perfected the style that first-year coach Mike Anderson said he’d install when he was hired in April, one modeled after the “40 Minutes of Hell” pioneered by his mentor Nolan Richardson. But the Red Storm did put Albany through more than 10 minutes of purgatory on Wednesday night.
St. John’s wrested control of the contest in the first half with a high-energy stretch of 11:01 where rattled off 21 unanswered points to build the foundation of an 85-57 non-conference victory before 2,963 at Carnesecca Arena.
That burst included nine points from Julian Champagnie and four from Marcellus Earlington, but the defense was truly center stage. The Red Storm (10-2) held the Great Danes (6-7) to 0-for-14 shooting with eight turnovers as it turned an 8-3 deficit into a 24-8 lead.
St. John’s extended its winning streak to six games, despite being without second-leading scorer Mustapha Heron. Heron, who suffered a sprained ankle in the Dec. 10 win against Brown, sat on the bench and is considered day-to-day. He has not practiced and thus appears unlikely for Saturday’s game in San Francisco against No. 16 Arizona. A return for the Dec. 31 Big East opener at home against No. 17 Butler may be feasible.
Earlington had 16 points with nine rebounds, Julian Champagnie had 14 points, Greg Williams Jr. had 11 points, Rasheem Dunn had 10 points and five assists and Josh Roberts had eight points, eight rebounds and four blocked shots for St. John’s. Those numbers look even more significant considering leading scorer LJ Figueroa had just nine points on 4-for-17 shooting.
St. John’s forced 24 turnovers that it converted into 30 points and used 16 offensive rebounds to add 15 more points. The Storm did commit an unsightly 19 turnovers that Anderson called “disappointing.”
The recent play of the three returning sophomores — Roberts, Williams, Jr. and Earlington — has the potential to reshape what had looked like a rebuilding year. Williams’ 8.4-minute average was the high among them as former coach Chris Mullin helped the team to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015.
But the way they are playing with confidence, Heron may find a team with an even greater arsenal of weapons when he returns.
“I hope we are a much better basketball team by the time we get Mustapha [back],” Anderson said. “That's the goal. We want to be playing some a better basketball, later on down the line.”
Williams missed almost three months with a back injury that bled into the preseason and Wednesday was his best yet. He said “I definitely feel like I'm getting back into shape and getting back into how I'm used to playing.”
Anderson said simply “there’s another level he can go to.”
Earlington has shown a passion for the physicality of the game as his minutes have tripled. He had six offensive rebounds in what was one his best games in a Storm uniform. And Roberts this season has averaged more than 26 minutes — as opposed to 6.3 a year ago — and is averaging 8.7 rebounds and 2.9 blocked shots.
“They’re cashing in on the opportunities,” Anderson said of the trio. “The slate was clean . . . When you put them in a situation where they have a chance to be successful, they get confidence and it’s all about confidence.”
“We all made a vow to give it all we’ve got and … [we] have an opportunity here with the new staff coming in to show them that we got talent,” Earlington said. “I feel like we've worked hard and its shown.”