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Bearcats man the hardwood against St. Johns in kick-off exhibition

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st-johns As a handful of Baruch’s athletic teams have their seasons draw to a close, others spring up to take their place. Basketball is one of the most celebrated sports at Baruch, as both the men’s and women’s squads are eagerly anticipating a return to the hardwood.

Head coach John Alesi routinely schedules exhibition matches versus Division I opponents to grant his team the opportunity to test itself against top-tier competition. With 10 of the 15-man roster spots occupied by newcomers, it also gives his players a chance to interact on the court.

Carnesecca Arena, home of the St. John’s Red Storm, hosted the Bearcats on Halloween night. Baruch put on an impressive display early on for the hundreds in attendance and those watching the live broadcast on ESPN3.

Sophomore point guard Isaac Doyin opened the scoring with a mid-range jumper in the first minute of action. The Bearcats’ defense forced four turnovers and held the Johnnies to 0-for-6 shooting from the field to start the match. A strong finish in the paint by Chimaechi “Chima” Ekekeugbor for a 3-point play put Baruch ahead 5-0.

The game briefly turned into a 3-point contest as each side drained long-range jumpers in rapid-fire succession. Baruch maintained their lead with 11:47 left in the half, but St. John’s began to wear down the Bearcats with its athleticism and roster depth.

Additionally, St. John’s size advantage allowed it to corral missed shots, which extended time of possession for the Red Storm, further exhausting Baruch on defense.

When the Bearcats inbounded the ball to start an offensive possession late in the first half, St. John’s executed a full-court press which forced turnovers and frustrated ball handlers.

“In the beginning, they sent a couple of traps and their length disrupted us. Even when we were able to beat the initial pressure, they were able to recover, use their length and contest jump shots and still get their hands on deflected passes which led to transition [points],” said Chima about facing a talented St. John’s squad.

Despite trailing in the double-digits, Baruch continued to run its offense undeterred by the deficit. A strong screen created space for sophomore guard William Sixsmith to drain a 3-pointer. Bryler Paige, making his return from a season-ending knee injury, fearlessly attacked the rim for a layup. The 6-foot-7-inch freshman center Allen Villar was light on his feet in the post as he pivoted for a clean finish at the basket. The team often fed him the ball to get one-on-one looks near the low block on both sides of the rim.

Baruch looked determined in the second half even as St. John’s expanded its lead. The Bearcats consistently set off-ball screens which resulted in shot opportunities. A steal by Chima followed by a sharp bounce pass between defenders produced a fast break bucket for senior transfer Dwayne Brydie.

St. John’s ability to space the floor with the vision to see passing lanes and the quickness to maneuver inside the painted area, ultimately lead to their overwhelming win. Thirty-two of its 49 second half-points came from working in the paint and crashing from the wing, highlighted by 6-foot-9-inch forward Richard Freudenberg cutting for a two-handed slam. Whether it was a give-and-go with Marcus LoVett and Yankuba Sima or a drive-and-kick around the perimeter, the Red Storm’s half-court offense was formidable. In addition to its success when running designed plays, it created havoc on defense and capitalized on mistakes. St. John’s tallied 28 points off of turnovers and 18 fast break points in the game compared to Baruch’s 7 and 2, respectively.

During one sequence, guard Federico Mussini grabbed a rebound, drove coast-to-coast for a layup, stole the ball in the ensuing possession and once again laid the ball in within 20 seconds. Villar was persistent in the post and the team as a whole was a nuisance in the waning seconds of the game. George Smyth Jr., 6-foot-5-inch freshman, battled for rebounds against players six inches taller than him. The final score of 49-99 was more indicative of the talent gap between the teams than the effort given on the court.

Chima’s 14 points, six rebounds, two steals and two 3-pointers led the Bearcats in each category. The newly minted captain hopes to build from this experience and apply what he learned from this game in the regular season.

Alesi echoed that sentiment in his postgame press conference. “I’m not worried about Chima, I’m not looking at tonight as an indicator of what Chima will do this season. He’s just got to let the game come to him a little bit,” said Alesi. “[He] will be tremendous.”

The team’s regular season opener is scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 15, in the Athletics and Recreation Center against Birmingham-Southern College, who advanced into the second round of the NCAA tournament last season. No opponent it faces the rest of the season will be as challenging as St. John’s and Alesi is counting on this experience to motivate the team all the way into the big dance.

Looking ahead in the season, the team will kickoff CUNYAC competition much later in the month, when it takes on York College on Nov. 29. A quick turnaround has the team pitted against City College, another CUNYAC opponent, just four days later. Given the slate of premier teams they are facing to begin the season, the Bearcats should fair well in their conference matchups.

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