For most of Monday night, Andre Curbelo was off the mark. From turnovers to missed shots, the new St. John’s point guard just didn’t have it.
Until he did. Until he produced the two biggest baskets of the night, consecutive lay-ups that sent the Johnnies to a dramatic 78-72 victory over Temple in the Empire Classic, sending them into a championship game matchup with Syracuse on Tuesday night at Barclays Center.
Curbelo’s traditional 3-point play with 1:15 left gave St. John’s the lead for good. And after Posh Alexander forced a turnover, Curbelo scored on another drive as coach Mike Anderson’s team improved to 5-0 on the young season.
Montez Mathis led St. John’s with 16 points, Joel Soriano added 15 and 12 rebounds and David Jones had 14 points and seven rebounds. Curbelo finished with 13 points, four assists and six turnovers.
With an eight-point lead down to one, Jones sank a deep 3-pointer from the right wing, then after two Alexander free throws, scored inside. Suddenly, it was an eight-point advantage again with 4:48 left. St. John’s, however, couldn’t keep that lead. Temple reeled off a 14-4 run to go ahead on a Zach Hicks 3-pointer with 1:29 left. But Curbelo found his form at just the right time.
It was another very slow start for St. John’s, similar to the opening half Thursday against Nebraska. This time, the Johnnies didn’t wait until halftime to flip the switch.
After falling behind by 13, as Temple hit five of its first 11 3-point attempts and St. John’s missed 23 of its first 27 shots, it began to find its footing. It ripped off a 20-5 run over the final 7:06. The Red Storm picked up their pressure, and tightened their defense, creating a more fast-paced tempo they thrive on.
The result was transition opportunities, easy baskets and a really strong close to the opening 20 minutes. Seven different Johnnies scored in the run led by Soriano’s six points, highlighted by a huge right-handed slam. Despite shooting just 35 percent from the field and failing to hit a single 3-pointer in eight attempts, they led by two at the break, mostly because they forced 13 turnovers (leading to 12 points), attempted 14 more shots than Temple and crushed the Owls in the paint, 26-6.
The second half started similar to the first, with Temple more in sync and re-taking the lead. St. John’s answered with a 11-0 run to go back up eight, capped by a driving layup by Mathis.
Sophomore guard Rafael Pnzon (sprained right ankle) didn’t play. He suffered the injury in last Thursday’s win over Nebraska.