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Much has changed since the last time St. John’s and Seton Hall met.
The COVID-19 pandemic eliminated postseason play last March and has created a chaotic 2020-21 season in which neither team will have fans on hand for games. The Pirates graduated superstar Myles Powell. St. John’s made significant additions to its roster.
Nevertheless, much is still the same. Seton Hall still has the best player on the floor and remains fully in command of the local rivalry.
Sandro Mamukelashvili torched the Red Storm on Friday, the same way Powell used to, scoring a career-high 32 points as Seton Hall topped St. John’s, 77-68, at Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., in the Big East opener for both teams.
“We had no answer for Sandro, even as we made runs in the second half,” coach Mike Anderson said after St. John’s lost to Seton Hall for the ninth time in 11 tries and the 15th time in 16 games on the road and dropped its league opener for the fourth straight season. “He played like a senior is supposed to, a guy that has those kinds of talents, and they do a good job of utilizing him.”
The Red Storm, who started slow and didn’t finish much better, were outscored 12-6 over the final 3:09. They tried a variety of defenders on Mamukelashvili, using length, quickness and strength. None of it worked.
Neither did their trademark pressure, which was more of a minor inconvenience to Seton Hall (4-3, 1-0) than a tactic to create the chaos they intended. The game settled into a half-court setting, in which St. John’s (5-2, 0-1) struggles. The Red Storm managed just 12 fast-break points, had fewer points off turnovers (13) than the Pirates (14) and shot 4-of-20 from 3-point range.
“Getting them to play in the half-court is kind of your goal against them because they’re so good in transition,” Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard said. “They’re so good at creating defensive live-ball turnovers. The pace, I think, really helped us.”
Mamukelashvili, a dynamic 6-foot-11 forward, had his way all game, adding nine rebounds to his career-high in points. He sank three 3-pointers and also had three assists. He frequently brought the ball up, adeptly navigating St. John’s pressure and creating offense late in the shot clock.
“It feels amazing just being out there [and playing like that], but I could never do any of this without my teammates and my coaches,” Mamukelashvili said. “They’ve invested so much in me these past three years, just building me up for moments like this.”
Sophomore Julian Champagnie continued his hot start for St. John’s, scoring 24 points and adding six rebounds, and Rasheem Dunn provided a spark off the bench in his first game back after a concussion with 10 points. But the rest of the team made just 14-of-37 shots from the field. As a group, St. John’s got to the free throw line only 10 times, compared to 28 for Seton Hall, which Anderson referenced on a few occasions.
“The game came down to the free-throw line,” he said. When asked if he didn’t think the officiating was even, Anderson declined to place any blame on the officials.
After taking a five-point lead into the break, Seton Hall scored the first six points of the second half, quickly pushing the lead to 11 and eventually led by as many as 12 points. St. John’s made several mini-runs, getting as close as three at one point. Each time, Mamukelashvili stunted the momentum by hitting a big jump shot, finishing off a drive or finding a teammate.
After Dunn’s steal and layup with 9:10 left, St. John’s was down just three points. But Mamukelashvili answered with a right-handed runner and was fouled. He hit the free throw. The next time downcourt, he scored on a layup and later found Jared Rhoden for a dunk to push the lead back to eight.
St. John’s did sneak back within a single possession, and was down three following two Champagnie free throws with 3:09 to go, but never got closer. Vince Cole missed a 3-pointer and Takal Molson scored the game’s next four points for Seton Hall.
It was a microcosm of the frustrating nature of the opener for St. John’s. It couldn’t sustain quality play.
“First game of conference play, we always talk about a sense of urgency, and you could see it with Seton Hall tonight,” Anderson said.
It wasn’t there for St. John’s — not for 40 minutes at least.