This is how Mike Anderson wants his team to play. This, he has repeatedly said, is how St. John’s has to win.
By defending relentlessly. By its pressure wearing down the opposition. By refusing to allow missed shots leak into missed assignments on the defensive end.
Struggling most of the season defensively, the Red Storm turned in one of their best defensive efforts of the season on Tuesday night, keying a much-needed 69-57 victory over Butler at Carnesecca Arena.
St. John’s entered the game last in the Big East in points allowed (80.8), last in field-goal percentage defense (48.4) and second-to-last in 3-point percentage defense (38.5). It had been treating the defensive end like an option, allowing 97 points to No. 7 Creighton on Saturday, getting torched by Georgetown for 97 points in an earlier loss.
“We are tired of losing — that’s what it comes down to,” sophomore star Julian Champagnie said after scoring a game-high 18 points. “We’re just tired of losing.”
They defended like it against Butler (3-7, 2-5). The Johnnies played with energy, focus and discipline at that end of the floor. They held Butler to 6 of 24 shooting from deep — and 1 of 11 in the second half — turned 16 turnovers into 15 points and limited the Bulldogs to 10 free throws. Champagnie described the performance as St. John’s “stepping into our identity.”
After a 13-point lead had been cut to four, the Red Storm (7-6, 2-5) reeled off 10 of the game’s next 11 points to regain command. The run was all about defense, fueled by two Posh Alexander (10 points, four rebounds) steals that led to layups and a Champagnie blocked shot of a Bryce Nze dunk attempt.
With Isiah Moore inactive for “not meeting team standards,” Josh Roberts was given a rare start, and the junior forward produced at both ends, providing a rim-protecting and finishing element St. John’s has sorely lacked. He scored eight points and grabbed three rebounds in a season-high 23 minutes, making the most of his opportunity.
“We were just in the locker room and we were talking about how if he didn’t play in that game we wouldn’t have won,” Champagnie said. “My player of the game is Josh, 100 percent.”
Anderson said Roberts’ role would expand, crediting the 6-foot-9 forward for how he has practiced and not gotten down despite limited action.
“I think it is his time now,” Anderson said.
St. John’s built a 13-point lead nearly midway through the second half and seemed to be coasting after a Dylan Addae-Wusu three-point play. But the Johnnies went cold, Anderson went deep into his bench and Butler caught fire, hitting seven consecutive shots and ripping off an 11-2 run to get within four with 9:23 to go.
Anderson reinserted his starters and Champagnie followed with four consecutive points to stabilize the game, kick-starting the 10-1 run. That spurt, though, was engineered by defense. So was this victory.
“I think our DNA’s in our defense,” Anderson said. “If our defense is consistent each and every night, we’re gonna be in ballgames. … The defense is what has been missing. We have been scoring, but we haven’t been stopping anybody.”
Anderson declined to elaborate on Moore’s status, other than to say he has yet to determine if his absence will last more than one game. Moore, a junior forward, was not at practice on Monday, according to the St. John’s coach.