Andre Curbelo patted Mike Anderson’s shoulder and smiled.
St. John’s new point guard had been asked what gave him the confidence to make such big plays with the game on the line after struggling so mightily for most of the first 39 minutes.
“This guy right here to my left,” he said, referring to the St. John’s coach.
Curbelo was at his best when the Johnnies needed him most, after they blew an eight-point lead in the final five minutes and trailed Temple with 75 seconds left in the Empire Classic on Monday night. The Illinois transfer responded with five consecutive points to send St. John’s to a gutty 78-72 victory and a spot in Tuesday’s championship game against old Big East rival Syracuse at Barclays Center.
“I had a tough year last year. I doubted myself at times, but coming home, having a great coach, great coaching staff, great teammates, they encourage me every day,” said the former Long Island Lutheran star, who was the Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year as a freshman at Illinois but struggled as a sophomore after dealing with a major concussion. “They know what I can do. They know what I can bring to the table.”
Curbelo’s three-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 Anderson’s team improved to 5-0 on the young season.
Montez Mathis led St. John’s with 16 points and put the game away with two free throws that extended the lead to five with 17 seconds left. Joel Soriano added 15 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks, and David Jones had 14 points and seven rebounds. Curbelo finished with 13 points, four assists, three steals and six turnovers. Jamille Reynolds scored 21 points for Temple (2-3).
It was a strange game that swung back and forth. St. John’s held an eight-point lead at three different junctures of the second half, but couldn’t put away Temple. That came after another slow start that saw the Johnnies trail by 25-12 before closing the first half with a 20-5 run.
Most importantly, they found a way to close out a game. Their struggles in single-digit contests a year ago was one of the storylines of their frustrating season, the Johnnies going 4-9 in games decided by six points or less last winter. In their first nail-biter this year, St. John’s prevailed.
“It shows that we’re getting better,” Anderson said. “Adversity hit us. We’re away from the confines of Carnesecca Arena. I wanted to see how we [would] react to it. Temple came out and hit us in the mouth early on.”
But Anderson’s team hit back on several occasions. With the game on the line, Curbelo delivered the knockout punch.
Sophomore guard Rafael Pinzon (sprained right ankle) didn’t play. He suffered the injury in last Thursday’s win over Nebraska. Senior forward Esahia Nyiwe was available, but didn’t play. He had been away from the team mourning the death of his brother, Naayian.