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St. John's falls behind early, crushed by Creighton

St. John's guard Julian Champagnie (2) makes a

St. John's guard Julian Champagnie (2) makes a free throw in the first half against Creighton during an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021, in Omaha, Neb. Credit: AP/John Peterson

St. John’s started its Saturday in Omaha with a big break: Marcus Zegarowski, Creighton’s top player and the Big East Preseason Player of the Year, was out with a hamstring injury.

And after the game tipped off, the Red Storm shot well above their averages by making 40% of their three-pointers and 47% overall.

But these factors and numbers did not add up to a win over No. 7 Creighton. It wasn’t even close. The St. John’s defense was a sieve and the Red Storm got smoked by the shorthanded Bluejays, 97-79, at CHI Health Center.

In fact, St. John’s (6-6, 1-5) wasn’t in the game for all that long. Creighton (10-2, 6-1) had its highest-scoring first half since it joined the Big East in 2013, shooting 59% from the floor and matching its per-game average of 10 three-pointers as it raced past the Red Storm for a 56-39 lead at the break.

The Bluejays led by double figures the rest of the way, coasting to an easy victory.

"Our defense seemed a step slow in getting to where their shooters were," Red Storm coach Mike Anderson said. "We scored 39 [in the first half], but you have to do it on the defensive side of the ball as well."

"I feel like we have to get a better defensive mindset," Julian Champagnie said. "I don’t think we’re going in saying, ‘We’re not going to play defense here.’ We’re going in saying, ‘We’re going to play defense and we’re going to lock up,’ but sometimes this kind of thing happens. I couldn’t tell you what it is."

Champagnie was one of the few bright spots for St. John’s. He had a career-best 33 points and 10 rebounds, the first Red Storm player with a 30-point double-double since D’Angelo Harrison did it against DePaul in 2015.

"He may be as good a one-on-one player as there is in the conference," Creighton coach Greg McDermott said.

Marcellus Earlington added 13 points and Posh Alexander had eight points and six assists for the Red Storm.

With Zegarowski out, Creighton got contributions from all over the place. Denzel Mahoney had 24 points, hitting four three-pointers. Duke transfer Alex O’Connell, who became eligible in December when the NCAA cleared all transfers to play immediately this season, had 16 points, including four three-pointers. Mitch Ballock added 14 points and also sank four three-pointers as the Bluejays made a season-high 16 shots from outside the arc. Six Bluejays scored in double figures.

"We had guys giving up open shots for other open shots and scored 40 points on 22 possessions [in one stretch]," McDermott said. "That’s how our offense is designed. That’s our culture."

Anderson’s reputation is for playing a defense-first brand of basketball and using pressure to speed opponents into making mistakes. That’s what makes this season confounding: The Red Storm defense has been poor for long stretches. Creighton had only 12 turnovers Saturday, seemingly unbothered by St. John’s press.

The Red Storm trailed 82-60 with 9:46 to play and twice got the deficit to 11, but as Champagnie said, "Our defense was like half on and half off . . . When you play at the seventh-ranked team in the country, you can’t have mishaps."

Creighton shot 54% overall and 44% from three-point range.

"It’s disappointing," Anderson said. "Today was about our defense . . . My issue was with our defense. The rhythm on defense just wasn’t there."

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