Despite today’s feelings, there were hopeful times before the floor fell out from under the St. John’s Red Storm yesterday in the 92-76 loss to Penn State.
A nervous but optimistic crowd watched St. John’s players in early warmups and wondered about their confidence after a loss to LIU one week earlier. Hope was shared at the appearance of a healthy Marcus LoVett and the team seemed loose, almost too loose, in warmups.
“They lost that winnable game last week. Why is there so much horsing around in the pregame warmups?” one fan expressed nervously.
At the 9:44 timeout of the game the same concerned fan shared, “there’s a big change from last year. One thing we do better is our awareness of the shot clock.” St. John’s, at the point, led 24 to 17.
Malik Ellison had just hit two three pointers, one on a nice feed from Kassoum Yakwe and the second on a feed from Shamorie Ponds.
Another fan said, “We are better than Penn State, faster and we are holding our own rebounding.”
Little could they predict what was soon to come.
Penn State went on a 35 to 5 run over the remainder of the half.
By the 7:14 mark Penn State had tied the score at 24 to 24.
Ellison, unguarded, traveled at the beginning of his drive.
Marcus LoVett drove under the basket and stepped on the out of bounds line.
Penn State forward Peyton Banks hit a three from the corner with no St. John’s player within ten feet of him.
Over the last nine minutes of the half St. John’s offense included:
· Four missed layups
· Five missed three point attempts
· One missed mid-range jumper
· Three turnovers and three offensive fouls
· Only two offensive rebounds grabbed, both on the same play. Unfortunately, the effort resulted in a missed layup by Ponds and a missed put back by Tariq Owens.
At halftime stunned fans expressed belief that Penn State would not continue to hit 60 percent of their shots as they had done in the first half. However, it was not just the Penn State shot percentage which doomed St. John’s.
· Penn State went into an aggressive 3-2 zone with 7:47 left in the first half. St. John’s guards were pressured 18 to 20 feet from the basket and the Red Storm could not penetrate it. The ball rarely came into the key to one of the forwards to drive to the basket or wait for defenders to collapse and pass it out to the guards for open shots.
Rather, St. John’s guards responded by taking jump shots slightly out of their normal range and under pressure from Penn State defenders. The Johnnies rarely attacked the offensive rim for rebounds.
· On defense Penn State hit over 50% of their three point attempts. In addition, they were often able to penetrate the paint and, when a St. John’s player came to pick the penetrating guard up, he simply passed off for an easy layup or dunk.
Remarkably, St. John’s fans did not give up. They expressed optimism for the second half and, on every St. John’s basket, chants of “Let’s go D” could be heard. Yakwe scored the first basket of the second half, but a six point run by Penn State left the score 58 to 31 at the 17:50 mark.
At this point full-court pressure by St. John’s led to several Penn State turnovers. Coupled with the fact that Malik Ellison started hitting jump shots from all over the court, the Johnnies were able to trim the margin to 16. They stole a Penn State pass but a turnover thwarted their continued comeback. The score never got closer.
There is no respected inside game for the Johnnies
As has happened throughout the season the Johnnies began by feeding Kassoum Yakwe in the low post and Yakwe scored the first two points of the game on a layup from the corner. However, when Penn State shifted to a zone defense, the zone pressured St. John’s guards with double teams 18 feet from the basket. Thereafter, there seemed to be little concern for a low post game by St. John’s.
Short term success for the frontline at the beginning of games must become a staple of play throughout the game. The fact that primary playmaker, Marcus LoVett, had been out for three games with an injury may account for some of the inconsistent play with the frontline players.
In addition, off the ball movement during the Penn State run left much to be desired as the Red Storm plans became increasingly dependent on the guard play. On one play, right after a timeout, Marcus LoVett got called on a five second violation because no one was moving to provide a target for him to pass to.
Frontline players did hold their own in the rebounding battle with Tariq Owens leading the way with 11 rebounds. Yakwe had seven.
Defensive Pressure Works but is not a Defensive Strategy
St. John’s went to a full court press two minutes into the second half. For about six minutes it was spectacularly successful leading to four steals and three Penn State turnovers. The most successful lineup on the press was Owens, Ponds, Ellison, LoVett and Federico Mussini.
However, after a Penn State timeout at the 12:00 mark, Penn State made adjustments and the once spectacular defense became, as one fan described, a “Swiss cheese defense”, full of holes and easily attacked by the Penn State guards.
The press is effective, at times, but cannot be a defensive strategy for a game. The team has to understand their assignments and focus on them. Play hard and play smart are the cornerstones of sound defensive play. Too many times Penn State attackers were able to attack the paint almost at will. St. John’s players only blocked three shots, well below their average, and on two of the blocks the ball went out of bounds giving Penn state another scoring opportunity.
Emergence of Malik Ellison
At the beginning of the year St. John’s coaches referred to Malik Ellison as the most improved player on the team. He was one of two shining lights in the loss to Penn State, scoring 22 points in thirty minutes of play. Ellison was deadly from three point range hitting on five of his six attempts and recorded three assists and two steals.
Tariq Owens continued his strong play scoring eleven points with eleven rebounds in 22 minutes of action. Owens unfortunately tends to be foul prone and fouled out of the game with about four minutes to play.
Fans were still chanting “let’s Go D”
The schedule becomes more difficult with a road game at Syracuse and the Big East schedule beginning December 29th. Fans were still chanting “Let’s Go D” with a minute left to play and a double digit deficit.
Fans are confident that Bashir Ahmed, Shamorie Ponds and Marcus LoVett will perform more successfully than their 23% shooting against Penn State. It was clear that, as difficult as the game was, St. John’s fans have not given up hope for the season.