St. John’s was going to be an NCAA Tournament team.
That was the narrative before the 2021-22 season. That was the belief. That was the expectation.
A little more than a month into the season, the narrative, the belief, the expectation all have become an existential question: What is the St. John’s Red Storm?
"We," St. John’s coach Mike Anderson said after an 83-69 win over Fordham on Sunday at Carnesecca Arena, "[are] still a work in progress."
After an unsurprising 95-75 loss to No. 8 Kansas on Friday night at UBS Arena, the question was what kind of response the Red Storm (6-2) would put forth against their longtime rivals from the Bronx.
At halftime, St. John’s led Fordham 46-33, but that does not tell the full story. After taking a 12-4 lead three minutes into the game, the Red Storm found themselves trailing 22-21 after the Rams’ Darius Quisenberry (16 points) drilled a three-pointer.
The Red Storm outscored Fordham 25-11 in the final 10 minutes of the first half. But should Fordham, undergoing yet another reset, trail by only 13 against a team whose goal is to play in meaningful games in March and April?
"They leave it all on the floor," Anderson said. "[Fordham coach Kyle Neptune] has those kids playing hard."
The Red Storm opened the second half with a 12-3 run and led 58-39 at the first media timeout. The spurt was sparked by St. John’s pressure defense. Individually, Esahia Nyiwe had a blocked shot and Julian Champagnie (16 points) had a steal. Collectively, St. John’s forced Fordham (6-4) into four missed shots.
For the game, St. John’s limited Fordham to 37.3.% shooting from the field (22-for-59) and 31.3% from behind the three-point line (10-for-32).
"Your defense has to be on the same page," Anderson said when asked what St. John’s did differently in defending the three-point shot. "Our guys were talking. They were talking more than they ever have before."
The pressure defense led to offense as Nyiwe and Champagnie each had two dunks in the stretch and Dylan Addae-Wusu (11 points) converted a layup.
The lead grew to as many as 19 points when Montez Mathis (16 points) converted two free throws. But like the first half, St. John’s could not put away the Rams. Fordham responded with a 10-0 run in a little more than a minute after Mathis’ second made free throw to cut the Red Storm’s lead to nine at 60-51.
St. John’s retaliated with a 7-0 spurt in a two-minute stretch to extend its advantage to 67-51, but Fordham closed to within eight after two free throws by Chuba Ohams (20 points) with 7:39 left. St. John’s outscored the Rams 14-8 in the remainder of the game.
"We [are] just trying to figure out things we can do," said Posh Alexander, who led St. John’s with 23 points. "I feel like [we’re] just going to be a good team."