In front of more than 13,400 fans at Madison Square Garden, many sporting orange and others boasting red, the Red Storm came away with an 84-72 victory for its third consecutive win. St. John’s improved its record to 7-3 on the young season.
Renewing the rivalry against its former Big East foe, St. John’s upset an experienced Syracuse team by shooting well from the field and receiving strong contributions from the bench.
Five players scored in double figures for the Red Storm, led by freshman guard Federico Mussini with 17 points. Durand Johnson, Kassoum Yakwe and Amar Alibegovic each contributed 15 points.
“Playing here is unbelievable and with this crowd gives us more energy to do everything,” Mussini said. “It’s an amazing experience. This was the best win of my life in the world’s most famous arena, so nothing better than this.”
Alibegovic, who averaged 3.9 points-per-game coming into Sunday’s afternoon matchup, pitched in 15 points with nine rebounds and three assists off the bench. He shot 3-of-4 from the 3-point line.
“It’s been some time since I’ve played like this, it’s all coming out at once,” Alibegovic said. “It was just pure adrenaline, I was just doing what felt in the moment.”
St. John’s shot nearly 50 percent from the field, including 12-of-24 from beyond the arc. In comparison, Syracuse shot just 36 percent, including an abysmal 19 percent from the 3-point line.
Syracuse head coach designate Mike Hopkins, coaching in his third game while Hall of Fame head coach Jim Boeheim serves his nine-game NCAA suspension, said shooting was the main difference in the game.
“We got some really good looks, we couldn’t knock them down,” Hopkins said. “St. John’s did a great job. They got really great shots. From the high post, from the 3-point line, they shot incredible.
“A couple of the kids, Mussini, they were like Steph Curry shots,” he added. “He was shooting deep and confident.”
Part of the Johnnies’ offensive success was ball movement against Syracuse’s 2-3 zone. The Red Storm dished out 20 assists on its 30 field goals.
“We knew we had to move the ball a lot,” Mussini said. “If we do it like that, we know that there’s going to be some space at a certain point. Move the ball a lot, make the move and then find the better shot.”
Syracuse has relied heavily on the three-point shot in its offense this year. Usual offensive threats Trevor Cooney and Malachi Richardson shot poorly, especially from distance. Richardson, a freshman forward, was 0-for-11 while senior guard Cooney only hit 1-of-8.
The lone bright spot for the Orange was Michael Gbinije, who made 7-of-11 from the field, including 60 percent from 3-point land, for 21 points and seven rebounds.
“We’ve been living and dying by the three,” Hopkins said. “When we make them, we’re really, really good.”
The numbers back up Hopkins’s claim. In Syracuse’s seven wins, the Orange shot better than 30 percent from the 3-point line. In its three losses, they shot worse than 30 percent.
St. John’s led for most of the game. Syracuse fought back in the second half, using a full-court pressure defense to force multiple Red Storm turnovers for easy baskets.
But the Orange couldn’t finish enough shots at the end of the game. Syracuse didn’t score in the game’s final three minutes and the Red Storm closed out the win with free throws.
Afterward, St. John’s first-year head coach Chris Mullin said this marquee win against Syracuse goes a long way for growing his young players’ confidence.
“Sometimes, when I’m pushing them, I truly believe this team can keep getting better,” Mullin said. “We’re young, we’re inexperienced, we’re all new guys, we’re speaking different languages, all those things. When you play together and you play well, it’s a good positive reinforcement.
“When you’re telling someone they can do it, it’s different when they go do it, then they believe themselves,” he added. “The tipping point is when they do it in the game. Then they prove it to themselves.”
Forward Durand Johnson said the game was a good team win, one that they will continue to build off.
“We showed today that we’re definitely headed in the right direction,” Johnson said.
St. John’s is now 39-51 all-time in 90 games against Syracuse. The last time the Red Storm won back-to-back years against the Orange was in 1993, when Hopkins was playing as a guard for Syracuse.