If you’re a St. John’s fan, this is what you had hoped to see. You wanted the Red Storm to respond. You crossed your fingers that the team wouldn’t be crippled by the absence of Big East Freshman of the Year front-runner Posh Alexander due to a right thumb injury.
For 20 minutes Wednesday night, Alexander’s absence was felt. But when it really mattered, St. John’s found a way to overcome being without its most important player.
After a sloppy first half in which they trailed by as many as 11 points, the Red Storm turned up the defensive intensity. They stopped settling for jump shots. They mimicked the effort, aggression and focus they had displayed during their recent six-game winning streak. And they returned from an eight-day layoff with a deserved, 81-67 victory over visiting Providence at Carnesecca Arena.
“It just tells you a lot about our basketball team, the character of our basketball team,” coach Mike Anderson said. “We always talk about staying together, even when adversity hits.”
The win gives St. John’s (15-10, 9-9 Big East) a chance at a winning record in league play for the first time since 2015. It also means that with a victory over skidding Seton Hall on Saturday, the Red Storm would get a first-round bye in next week’s Big East Tournament and could finish no worse than fifth.
To make up for the loss of Alexander, St. John’s got contributions from almost its entire roster. Greg Williams Jr. looked his best since missing three games in late January with a lower back injury and finished with 15 points. Leading scorer Julian Champagnie was his typical efficient self, notching 16 points and 10 rebounds. Isaiah Moore continued to provide a boost of energy off the bench, with 10 points, 11 rebounds and three assists.
Most important was Rasheem Dunn, who missed seven of his first eight shots and had struggled immensely of late. But the fifth-year senior from Brooklyn, aided by a pep talk from Anderson and encouragement from his teammates, woke up in time. He scored 18 of his team-high 21 points after halftime, including eight during an 11-0 St. John’s run to break a tie late in the second half.
“You saw Rasheem probably have one of his better halves in a St. John’s jersey,” Anderson said.
The Johnnies’ defense, so tenacious during the streak and shaky in losing three of the previous four games, was as good in the second half as it had been all year. The Red Storm held Providence to 34 percent shooting from the field and without a made 3-pointer in nine attempts over the final 20 minutes.
They additionally forced eight turnovers and limited Friars standout David Duke to just three points.
After recent losses, St. John’s had talked about forgetting its identity, which is defense. In the second half Wednesday, Anderson’s team was energized by its defense, scoring 21 of its 23 fastbreak points and wearing down the plodding Friars.
“Like Coach [Anderson] always says, ‘Our defense is our offense,’ ” Dunn said.