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St. John's storms out of gate to win season opener over Mercer

LJ Figueroa #30 of the St. John's Red

LJ Figueroa #30 of the St. John's Red Storm drives to the basket against the Mercer Bears during a men's basketball game at Carnesecca Arena in Queens, New York on Wednesday, Nov 6, 2019.  Credit: Steven Ryan

The hands were quick. The deflections were plentiful. The transition baskets were abundant.

On the day in April when St. John’s hired Mike Anderson to be its coach, he promised the Red Storm would brandish a high-intensity defense and play extremely hard. In his first game on the sideline, that is precisely what they did.

St. John’s forced 24 turnovers, converted them into 30 points and scored 40 on the fast break as it streaked to a 109-79 wire-to-wire victory before 3,354 Wednesday night at Carnesecca Arena. The Storm opened its 113th season by giving Anderson his e 380th career victory at the start of his 18th season of Division I coaching.

St. John’s point total is the most it has amassed in a season opener since it tallied 126 against Southern in 1986. It’s also the most points St. John’s has scored in a coaching debut.

“We took the fight to them,” Anderson said. “We did some really good things: we shared the basketball, we had the right guys taking the shots at the right time . . . they things they’ve done in practice carried over.”

St. John’s was all over the Bears from the start and kept coming at them. The Storm opened the game with returning starters Mustapha Heron and LJ Figueroa flanked by 6-9 sophomore Josh Roberts, 6-8 freshman Julian Champagnie and grad transfer Nick Rutherford at point guard. And it had a nine-deep rotation to keep fresh legs fueling the defense.

One stretch typified what St. John’s wants to be. Marcellus Earlington’s deflection and steal ended up a Rutherford layup. A hasty Mercer three-point attempt was rebounded by Rutherford, who threw an outlet pass to Heron for a three-pointer. A steal on the ensuing possession resulted in a Heron dunk. All that happened in 34 seconds and was the first seven points in a 14-0 run for a 39-15 lead. The Storm led 59-38 at the half.

“It’s exciting. It’s tough to play but it’s fun to play,” said Heron, who played his first two seasons at Auburn and faced Anderson’s Arkansas teams. “It’s more fun to play in it than against it.”

“I love it, it fits the way I play,” Roberts said. “And it fits u as a team. . . . when we’re running we can do a lot out of it.”

Heron finished with 25 points, Figueroa had 18 and Marcellus Earlington came off the bench to score 17 for St. John’s. Two other key performances were Roberts’ nine points, seven rebounds and four blocked shots and Rutherford’s 14 points and eight assists. The Storm shot 50 percent from the floor, 42 percent on three-pointers and committed only nine turnovers.

“We only had nine turnovers and you’re playing that pace and many guys as we were playing,” Anderson said. “And we took Mercer out of what they wanted to do.”

Roberts, Earlington and Greg Williams Jr. – who is returning from a back injury and had six points in 18 minutes – are clearly going to have bigger roles after former coach Chris Mullin used them just sparingly as freshmen.

“They’ll have to do it every day,” Heron said.

It’s hard to call Wednesday’s performance a true measure of what St. John’s will become this season. This isn’t the Mercer program that shocked Duke at the start of the 2014 NCAA Tournament. And St. John’s is still awaiting word from the NCAA on the appeals it filed after Cleveland State transfer Rasheen Dunn and North Carolina State transfer Ian Steere had applications for immediate eligibility denied. Both would potentially start for this team.

But true measure or not, this performance has to be seen as a good omen.

“I hope our fans enjoyed it,” Anderson said. “I’ve said it’s an entertaining style of basketball. But it’s also winning basketball.”

New York Sports