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St. John's pulls out win over NJIT in OT

Julian Champagnie #2 of St. John's drives to

Julian Champagnie #2 of St. John's drives to the basket against NJIT during a men's basketball game at Carnesecca Arena on Saturday, Nov 27, 2021.  Credit: Steven Ryan

St. John’s is playing with fire.

For a third straight game on Saturday, the Red Storm were matched against a far inferior opponent and failed to put it away when they had the chance. If they keep playing down to the competition, some team is going to bite them.

This time the opponent was NJIT, and this time the chance to salt it away came with 11 minutes left in the game.

Stef Smith took a nice feed from Posh Alexander and drained a three-pointer from near the top of the arc to cap a 14-3 run that drove the margin to 16 points. But St. John’s ended up needing overtime to pull out a 77-68 non-conference win before 3,243 at Carnesecca Arena.

Joel Soriano, the 6-11 Fordham transfer, scored five of his 16 points in the extra period and the Red Storm (5-1) allowed only three points in the final four minutes to get across the finish line.

With St. John’s ahead 58-42 on Smith’s three-pointer, James Lee had eight of his 17 points as the Highlanders (2-3) used four St. John’s turnovers to get back into the game. Dylan O’Hearn (19 points) made a tough driving layup with 1:44 left to tie it at 63.

St. John’s held for one shot with about 26 seconds left in regulation, but Alexander lost the handle. He was able to recover possession but missed the shot.

"I don’t feel like anything was missing — I just feel like it was lack of defense in [these] games," Alexander said. "I feel like it was the team that came in? Everybody said they’re pretty bad, but I don’t think they were bad . . . I want to give a shout-out for coming in to play hard against us.

"We’ve just lacked on defense a lot."

Alexander, who missed the last game with a minor calf strain, was on the court for the Red Storm’s best stretches. In the first 10 minutes of the second half, he had five of his 16 points, four of his seven assists and two of his four steals when St. John’s was building its biggest lead.

"We have that in us," Alexander said. "What I want to see more of is us playing that defense for 40 minutes."

"He ignites our defense . . . It’s contagious," Red Storm coach Mike Anderson said. "You see guys flying around on the floor. We’re scrambling to pick them up and our rotations were so much better . . . Pressure defense is a gamble and you have to be able to rotate to get back into position."

Julian Champagnie needed 17 shots to get 14 points but also had 10 rebounds. Montez Mathis had 10 points and seven rebounds and Soriano had nine rebounds to go with his 16 points. Esahia Nyiwe, a 6-10 Texas Tech transfer, made his presence felt with three of the Red Storm’s seven blocked shots.

Anderson called the overall performance — in which the Red Storm committed 18 turnovers and shot 39% from the floor — "sluggish." And Alexander said, "We came out lazy."

The last three wins — relatively narrow victories over FDU, St. Francis (Brooklyn) and NJIT — don’t exactly suggest that St. John’s is ready for its biggest non-conference game, Friday against fourth-ranked Kansas at UBS Arena. After a two-point loss at Indiana, the Jayhawks represent St. John’s biggest chance for a non-conference resume- builder.

"We’ll be prepared, we’ll be ready," Anderson said. "We’d better be."

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