St. John's beat the Seton Hall Pirates, 91-72, in the Big East quarterfinals on Thursday at Madison Square Garden to set up a semifinal match Friday against UConn. Newsday's St. John's beat writer Roger Rubin reports. Credit: Jim McIsaac

It was St. John’s biggest game of the season. It faced an opponent it hadn’t been able to beat, Seton Hall. And winning Thursday’s Big East Tournament quarterfinal at the Garden was essential for the Red Storm to make the NCAA Tournament.

And there was Joel Soriano, the guy this whole thing started with, turning in his most impactful performance in weeks. He had 14 points, shot 5-for-7, added a dozen rebounds — including six on the offensive glass — and was a strong defensive presence for almost all of his 31 minutes.

Nothing could have been more apropos.

Rick Pitino made Soriano a central figure in the reconstruction of St. John’s after he took over last March, naming the starting center from the 2022-23 Red Storm roster as team captain right out of the gate before he brought in a dozen new players. And Soriano was so important in the early going, averaging 17.3 points and 10.1 rebounds as the Red Storm started 12-4 and 4-1 in the Big East.

He hasn’t had a consistent impact in games for a while, but his leadership hasn’t diminished. And as Chris Ledlum said, “He’s our captain, and when he’s playing well, we feed off it.”

And that they did. Even though St. John’s, by design, played a faster pace than the 6-11 center prefers in the 91-72 win that propelled the Red Storm into their first conference semifinal since 2000, Soriano was in on all of it.

“The big fella here was great tonight,” Pitino said. “He’s great because the style of play we tried to play tonight is not exactly the way he can play. But he did it. He’s sprinting up and down the court. He got in the low post, made good decisions.

“If he plays like that going forward,” he added, “we’re going to be tough to beat.”

“I came into this game and I knew that my team needed me and I was going to do whatever I had to do to get the win,” Soriano said. “I had to come in here and dominate my position . . . [Pirates center Jaden] Bediako the last six times we played, he dominated me on the offensive glass, blocking shots, doing every little thing for their team. So I just tried to be the better matchup in my position today.”

Soriano is the only Red Storm player who had been born the last time St. John’s got to Semifinal Friday Night. He’s also become a bit of a study on St. John’s history since transferring from Fordham before the 2021-22 season.

“We haven’t made it to the semifinals in 20-plus years,” Soriano said. “Being able to do that, being able to say you were a part of history is amazing. Regardless of how I played today . . . I would have been ecstatic because we got the win.

“It’s an unbelievable feeling, man,” he added. “We play on Friday night. Everybody that I’ve known from St. John’s, and coaches — ‘Coach P’ even said, ‘Playing Friday night at Madison Square Garden, there’s no other feeling, no other tournament bigger than the Big East Tournament.’ ”

The six players in their final season of eligibility — Soriano, Ledlum, Daniss Jenkins, Jordan Dingle, Nahiem Alleyne and Sean Conway — have been saying throughout the season that playing this season for Pitino and the Red Storm has been about playing in the NCAA Tournament.

Thursday’s win seems to assure that, but it was no surprise that Soriano had something else on his mind before he got dressed after the game. He savors that St. John’s is getting a crack at No. 2-ranked and top-seeded Connecticut on Friday. The Huskies swept them in the regular season.

“We know that if we play the way we want to play, no one can beat us . . . and we’re going to be there tomorrow — we’re going to bring it,” he said.

Asked if it was about beating UConn, he replied, “Not at all — because it’s St. John’s back in the semifinals.”

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