St. John's basketball mixes defenses in wire-to-wire victory against Xavier

The St. John's basketball team mixed its defense often in a convincing victory over Xavier in which the Johnnies never trailed.

Dec 20, 2023; Queens, New York, USA; St. John's Red Storm center Joel Soriano (11) dunks over Xavier
Dec 20, 2023; Queens, New York, USA; St. John's Red Storm center Joel Soriano (11) dunks over Xavier / Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports
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There have not been many games in previous seasons that the St. John's basketball team has led wire-to-wire against Big East competition -- the first that Rick Pitino coached on Wednesday night was.

The Johnnies used an 8-0 run to begin the game against Xavier, behind five quick points from Daniss Jenkins, and never looked back.

The offense was firing on all cylinders against a porous Musketeer defense but it was the Red Storm defense -- mixing and matching different looks -- that was the most impressive in its 81-66 victory.

St. John's pressed, played man-to-man, and used a zone for the first time this season. It all worked, specifically in the second half, with Xavier shooting 29.4-percent from the floor and 9.1-percent (1-of-11) from 3-point range.

Pitino cited Xavier's offensive struggles in losses against Oakland and Delaware -- two middle tier mid-major programs -- as the biggest reason why he implemented a zone against the Musketeers, compared to good showings offensively against elite teams like Houston and Purdue.

"We felt if we had to play them 40 minutes [man-to-man], with the way they play in transition, we were in big trouble," Pitino explained.

The St. John's defense was able to force 18 turnovers and hold Xavier (6-6) to 34.9-percent shooting from the field and just 19.0-percent from 3-point range for the game and its leading scorer and best shooter -- Quincy Olivari -- missed both of his attempts from deep.

"The best thing you can do is mix up your defenses," Pitino added. "It's not easy in two days to implement something and play it so well."

"I haven't been impressed with my team at all this year. Except tonight."

The strong defensive performance can be attributed to the increased minutes for Nahiem Alleyne, who started for the first time since opening night, and ended with 15 points, four rebounds, and two assists in 33 minutes -- a season high.

"It starts with my defense...I try lead with my defense every single day in practice," Alleyne said.

"I just have to treat every practice like it's a game."

Joel Soriano -- again -- led the way for the Red Storm with 18 points, 14 rebounds, five assists, and six blocks as his campaign for Big East Player of the Year started off on a great note and continues to play like an All-American but knows St. John's has to continue to improve throughout league play.

"Those three losses we took [in non-conference play], I feel like we learned a lot as a team," Soriano explained.

"I wouldn't want to be coming into this game 9-0 and not learn anything...it was a great punch in the face. I feel like guys are finally learning what it takes to be a great team."

St. John's (8-3) will be tested when it gets back on the court as a trip to Hartford to face No. 5 UConn (10-2) -- which lost by 15 points on the road against Seton Hall -- awaits on Satuday night (8:00 p.m. ET, FOX).

Next. RJ Luis expected to return to practice soon for St. John's. RJ Luis expected to return to practice soon for St. John's. dark