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Johnnies have come a long way in a short time
By Joseph Staszewski

It took one of St. John’s oldest rivals to provide the best look into what the program’s bright future will look like.

The Red Storm men’s basketball team did everything right—from game plan to execution to its celebration—in an 84-72 upset over former Big East rival Syracuse Dec. 13 at Madison Square Garden. It was the first time SJU has won two straight against Syracuse since 1993, and the best win so far in the coach Chris Mullin era.

The team looked nothing like the young and inexperienced group we saw in a 48-44 win against Niagara five days earlier. St. John’s is improving more quickly than first believed.

“I truly believe this team can keep getting better,” Mullin said. “So something like this is really important, more for them. It just shows them that there is more there.”

It’s also the right message to send with more than a dozen recruits in attendance and is the type of win St. John’s can lean on with conference play getting under way against Creighton on New Year’s Eve at Carnesecca Arena. The coaching staff can point to the win over Syracuse when trying to bring more talent to Queens.

“We showed today we are definitely headed in the right direction,” graduate student guard Durand Johnson said.

He had 15 points, seven rebounds and four assists for his best game in a Red Storm uniform. Classmate Ron Mvouika added 10 points and seven boards to help St. John’s shoot 49.2 percent from the field.

More importantly, the freshmen played like upper classmen. Federico Mussini connected on five three-pointers on his way to 17 points and turned the ball over just twice.

“They have all gotten better,” said Syracuse assistant coach Mike Hopkins, who filled in for the suspended Jim Boeheim.

Forwards Yankuba Sima and Kassoum Yakwe showed how dynamic a duo they can be for years to come. They combined for 24 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks, even with Sima in foul trouble. The pair allowed SJU (7-3) to effectively attack the Orange’s 3-2 zone from the high post.

“We were going to him and Sima, basically putting the ball in their hands to make the next decision,” Mullin said. “I thought they both handled it really well.”

By no means should we expect this St. John’s team to play like this every night, but there will be some special ones at the World’s Most Famous Arena when it does.

The Garden—still filled with more orange shirts than red—was rocking for most of the afternoon. The roars started when Amar Alibegovic came off the bench to score seven of his 15 points during a 13-2 run that helped put SJU up 40-31 at the break. They got louder after a Mussini 3-pointer made it 74-64 with 5:17 to play in the game—and louder still at the final buzzer, after chants of “New York’s Team.” It’s something the St. John’s newcomer can get used to.

“This was the best win of my life,” Mussini said. “In the World’s Most Famous Arena, nothing better than this.”

There will be. It is just the first real taste of what’s to come.

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