Whether St. John’s is having a disappointing season or not, the home comforts of Madison Square Garden for the Big East tournament can be a welcome March elixir, at least for one game.
The eighth-seeded Johnnies entered the tournament with essentially no chance of earning an NCAA bid for the fourth straight year under the leadership of Mike Anderson, unless he ran the table in his second home.
The Red Storm took advantage of that opportunity for much of Wednesday’s tournament opener, dominating No. 9 seed Butler, 76-63, and cooling down the hot seat under Anderson, at least for a few hours.
The win sets up a rematch with No. 1 seed Marquette, whom the Johnnies (18-14) nearly eliminated in the regular-season finale the previous Saturday. The quarterfinals begin Thursday at noon as the Johnnies attempt to reach the Big East semifinals for the first time since 2000, the last time they won the championship.
Joel Soriano owned the paint, scoring 19 points, grabbing 15 rebounds and blocking 2 shots. AJ Storr added 15 points, Posh Alexander scored 13 points and Dylan Addae-Wusu had 10 points and 10 rebounds and four assists with Alexander and Addae-Wusu picking up the pace for the Bulldogs (14-18) at every opportunity.
This is the kind of basketball that Johnnies fans have a right to expect from this group.
“I think our guys came out with good energy and made some shots early, settled inside, did a good job getting to the rim,” said Anderson, whose team outrebounded Butler, 53-28. “I thought it was going to be a good stat in this particular game.”
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If there was momentum in a second-half rally in a 96-94 regular season loss at Marquette, the Johnnies grabbed it hard, especially on the glass. It wasn’t just Soriano. St. John’s had more offensive rebounds than Butler in total for most of the game.
That stat, among other things, had to worry Butler’s coach, Thad Matta, who returned to Hinkle Fieldhouse after successful runs at Xavier and Ohio State to help turn around a program that had floundered through some tough seasons in the Big East.
“When we started we were not connected. We weren’t together,” Matta said. “The transition. The rebounds. The difference in the game was the rebounding, obviously.”
When Alexander hit his first 3-pointer at 3:04 into the game, St. John’s took a 9-7 lead and never lost again. That started a 20-9 run on the Red Storm. After Butler pulled within five at 26-21 with 6:56 remaining in the first, Soriano led the Johnnies on an 18-8 run to end the half and a commanding 44-29 lead.