This time last year, Joel Soriano was on the bench, and his first season at St. John’s couldn’t have started worse.
A year later, he’s become an invaluable part of the program and one of the most improved players in recent memory.
This trend continued on Saturday afternoon. Despite the absence of Posh Alexander (concussion protocol) and the outings of Andre Curbelo and David Jones, St. John’s beat Niagara, 78-70, behind Soriano’s sixth double-double of the season to go unbeaten at 7-0.
After a long summer getting back into the best shape of his life, Soriano performed like an elite player at the start of the season. He gave the Red Storm a new dimension as a post-up threat, and on Saturday he beat Niagara inside, producing 21 points and 19 rebounds. Perhaps most importantly, Soriano took a big step forward on glass. He already has three games this season with at least 14 boards.
Soriano helped St. John’s survive a choppy performance in which he shot poorly from the field (39.4%), was just 3 for 15 on 3-point attempts and missed 15 free throws after won the Empire Classic title against Syracuse on Tuesday. .
Jones, Montez Mathis, Dylan Addae-Wusu and O’Mar Stanley each had 10 points for St. John’s. Noah Thomasson led Niagara with 24 points.
St. John’s held a nine-point lead at the break, mostly thanks to their transition play. The Red Storm had 15 quick break points, the result of 10 forced turnovers that made up for their poor 3-point shooting (1 for 8) and a loose 3-point shooting defense that allowed Niagara to go 6 for 11 from beyond the arc.
Soriano continued to perform well, scoring 13 points and eight rebounds in the first 20 minutes against the smaller Purple Eagles. St. John’s, however, did not close the half well. Up 14 at one point, he managed just two field goals in the final 6:21, keeping Niagara close. Without a real leader on the pitch – Curbelo was on the bench at fault – the attack became sluggish.
St. John’s received a scare in the opening minutes when Jones limped out of the game. After briefly returning to the locker room, however, he returned to the game.
The Red Storm led as far as 19 points in the second half and looked well in control until Niagara reeled off a 12-0 run fueled by open 3-point looks and came within five on a lay- up from Aaron Gray with 8:11 to go. . St. John’s responded with seven straight points to push the lead into double digits and didn’t have to sweat the rest of the way.