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Takeaways: when grit and determination were not quite enough

Rebounding woes, poor three-point shooting but still in the game to the end

The St. John’s Red Storm basketball team fought hard but came up a bit short in a spirited second half comeback against the 24th ranked Xavier Musketeers last night.

Fans, when asked before the game, to identify the keys to a Red Storm upset cited two things:

· Neutralize the play of Xavier point guard Edmond Sumner.

· Find an offensive threat amongst St. John’s frontcourt players.

These hopes were challenged in the first eleven seconds of the game when Xavier isolated 6 ‘6” Edmond Sumner down low on 6’0” Marcus LoVett for a short turnaround shot and a 2 to 0 lead. St. John’s played catch-up for the rest of the game.

At the 17:35 mark St. John’s hit its first points as LoVett found Kassoum Yakwe on the left side for a four footer and hopes that the front court would play a role in the game surged. However, these were the only points Yakwe would score in the game.

Malik Ellison had the duty of guarding top scorer Trevon Bluiett and he and teammates successfully contained him in the first half when Bluiett only scored six points. However, Sumner was too much for the Red Storm, scoring nine of Xavier’s first 17 points, mostly on drives to the basket.

Neither Shamorie Ponds nor Marcus LoVett were able to get untracked in the first half which ended in a 32-25 score. Federico Mussini provided a spark with a pull up jump shot, two foul shots after a steal and a three from the corner on an assist from LoVett. When Xavier pulled ahead by ten late in the first half, Bashir Ahmed hit a three from the corner to make the score 32 to 25 at the half.

When asked impressions of the game at halftime, a season ticket holder since 1980 stated that unfortunately, “the team has only three true Big East players – the two freshmen guards and Ahmed.” He further assessed – “we love the two freshmen but for us to win they have to start hitting shots. Do you know what Al McGuire once said was the best thing about freshmen? They become sophomores.” It was a candid assessment.

The second half began with a three from Ahmed, assisted by LoVett, a deficit of four points and a roar from a rather reticent crowd.

St. John’s cheerleaders.
Wendell Cruz

However, the crowd’s energy was short lived as Xavier quickly increased the lead to seven on the first of three three-pointers by Xavier’s Bluiett. Ponds missed a three and a rare offensive rebound by St. John’s led to a drive by Malik Ellison, reducing the Xavier lead to five at the 17:59 mark.

It was then that the all-too-common Red Storm slump began. This time the slump was on the defensive and rebounding end. Bluett made two more threes sandwiched around a driving layup and fans called out, “no more open three pointers.”

During the stretch the Red Storm, at times, played solid defense forcing the Musketeers to take a poor shot as the time clock wound down - only to have Xavier grab an offensive rebound to bring the ball out for another 30 seconds to shoot and eventually score. The deficit reached 15 points after a missed driving layup by LoVett and Bluitt hitting the last of his threes at the 9:51 mark of the half.

Coach Mullin called a time out and St. John’s came to life. Ponds hit Darien Williams for a layup. LoVett hit his only three of the game on an assist from Ellison and the crowd again became alive. A fan was heard calling out, “get hot kid … get hot”.

Pressure by St. John’s followed resulting in a LoVett steal, a pass to Ellison who dished off to Owens driving down the left side. He was fouled by RaShid Gaston of Xavier, hit two free throws and, in less than minute, the lead was reduced to eight.

With Xavier up by nine at the 6:21 mark LoVett missed two free throws and Sumner responded with a court length drive and was fouled. He fell awkwardly and had to leave the game in pain [update: he will be out for the season]. Xavier’s Goodin made the foul shot in his stead and the lead was a seemingly insurmountable twelve points.

But the St. John’s rally was not over. The strategy on the offensive end changed from looking for three-point attempts to effective drives by Ponds, LoVett and Ellison towards the hoop.

Shamorie Ponds drives to the hoop
Wendell Cruz

In addition, Red Storm guards began feeding Williams (9 points) under the basket for short hook shots or layups. When Williams tipped an Ellison miss in at the 4:55 mark the crowd finally became alive and chants of “Defense … defense” were heard throughout the Garden. At the 4:16 mark LoVett stole the ball and was fouled. He made one of two foul shots and the deficit was two points.

Xavier extended the lead to four points and, at the TV timeout at the 3:26 mark, Xavier Coach Mack was able to reorganize strategy to counter the Johnnies press which brought them back into the game.

Although remaining close to the waning seconds of the game, the Johnnies were never able to tie the score much less take a lead. Xavier was in the lead from the 11-second mark of the first half throughout the game.

Three Takeaways

Did the Red Storm find an inside offensive threat?

Yakwe scored the first two points of the game on a nice feed from LoVett. Tariq Owens scored seven points. But the real threat was Williams, shooting four for four from the field on layups on feeds from the guards and on hook shots, who demonstrated the most promise for future games.

Darien Williams has shown an ability to score in past games, taking feeds deep inside the paint. Hopefully the Red Storm can continue to develop his game which would force opponents to pay attention and relieve some of the pressure on the guards outside.

Guards can score without hitting threes

Ponds and LoVett went one for nine on three point attempts and yet still scored 34 points between them. Their drives to the basket resulted in several Xavier fouls. Unfortunately, several missed free throws by the pair during the second half rally doomed it.

Ellison scored seven points on drives to the basket also missing his three attempts at three pointers.

Mussini demonstrated an ability to give a spark off the bench with seven points in a span of four minutes on two outside shots and two free throws after a steal.

Defensive rebounding woes continue

The Red Storm were outrebounded 45 to 26 by a taller, stronger Xavier team. This has been a trend in many St. John’s losses. To the team’s credit, they showed grit and determination and made the game a contest to the very end.

Following a game when the team outrebounded the Providence Friars in a win at Providence, the question remains why the Red Storm have an inability to hold its own on the boards. The same rebounding disparity was seen in the Seton Hall and Georgetown away games when an opponent that is taller and stronger takes the court.

However, there are other issues apparent. St. John’s guards are too often beaten on drives to the basket forcing the front line to leave their assignments to contest the opponent driving to the basket. Not only does this take them out of position for a rebound, it also leaves their man free for a pass for an easy layup or dunk.

A review of the game’s tape by players and staff will hopefully identify these breakdowns (which have been happening all season) and make adjustments to correct them.

Otherwise, the team will continue to find itself at a significant disadvantage particularly when facing the taller, physically stronger teams in the conference. But that development is likely to come slowly - not in the next game.

Richard Freudenberg/ Shamorie Ponds battle for a rebound
Wendell Cruz

Johnnies travel to Marquette in two days

Over eight thousand fans were in attendance for the Xavier game but it was a relatively quiet, perhaps pensive, crowd. This season it has become clear that anyone in the Big East can beat anyone on a given night. Marquette is a guard-oriented team which may be a good match up for the Johnnies.

Fans need to come out, make some noise and cheer on out Johnnies as they take on a squad who upset the number one team in college basketball, Villanova, last week. St. John’s players have talked about the energy of the fans willing them on to victory.

Did we see enough to still believe? On an off night the Johnnies gave fans enough. Let’s Go Johnnies!!