There was fatigue. There was rust. But most of all, after an 18-day layoff, there was the return of Julian Champagnie.
That was enough Wednesday night for St. John’s.
In his first game in nearly a month, Champagnie looked every bit like an All-American. He wasn’t rusty. He didn’t show any fatigue. And he carried the Red Storm to an 89-84 over DePaul in their Big East opener, torching the Blue Demons to the tune of 35 points, 16 rebounds and three blocked shots. Champagnie sank deep jumpers, drove to the basket and got to the free-throw line.
It was a significant win for St. John’s (9-3, 1-0 Big East), coming off a loss to Pittsburgh without Champagnie on Dec. 18, before the Red Storm’s COVID-19 outbreak. St. John’s needed to build some momentum with road games coming up against No. 16 Providence (Saturday) and Connecticut next Wednesday).
Champagnie, with help from Posh Alexander and Dylan Addae-Wusu, made sure the Red Storm didn’t start with a loss in conference play. After a slow start, Alexander finished with 16 points and four assists, and Addae-Wusu notched 17 points and eight assists. Addae-Wusu iced it with a shot clock-beating 3-pointer with 28.4 seconds left that pushed the lead to six.
Javon Freeman-Liberty scored 24 points for DePaul (9-4, 0-3).
Alexander came out of the break hot, hitting consecutive 3-pointers. Champagnie followed with a baseline slam that seemed to wake up DePaul. The Blue Demons reeled off 14 of 16 points to go ahead for the first time since early in the first half, 54-53, with 13:50 left. At one point, they had hit 10 of their first 15 shots from the field in the second half.
The Blue Demons led by as many as five, before St. John’s answered with a Montez Mathis-fueled 10-2 run to reclaim the lead. Champagnie took over from there, dominating the final minutes. His top-of-the-key 3-pointer gave St. John’s a six-point edge with 4:34 left, a lead it didn’t relinquish.
Considering the long layoff and the inability to finish around the basket (St. John’s made just 3 of 19 layup attempts), the Red Storm were in a solid spot with a four-point lead at halftime. They led by as many as 11, on the strength of a 9-0 run capped by a Mathis steal and slam, and received strong production from Champagnie.
The junior star, in his first action since Dec. 12, scored 13 points and added seven rebounds in the opening half. Six of the eight Johnnies scored, and Soriano picked up where he left off against Pittsburgh, recording four points, six rebounds and two blocks.
Still, St. John’s had ample opportunities to create more breathing room. It couldn’t finish off transition opportunities created by its pressure defense, and missed a number of lightly contested layups.
St. John’s had just nine available scholarship players. Graduate senior Tareq Coburn (back) and freshman Rafael Pinzon (COVID-19 protocols) were unavailable. Pinzon was on the bench.