Before a sellout crowd at Carnesecca arena a poised and powerful Creighton Bluejay team brought reality home with a sound 85-72 thrashing of the Red Storm.
The Fans in the Stands arrived enthused but pensive as to the Red Storm’s prospects for victory. Some mentioned the control of the three-point shooting of the Bluejays as a key to victory while one fan emphatically stated, “whichever team has the more productive frontcourt will win the game.”
A second fan added, “There’s a seven foot, red shirt freshman on Creighton … I do not know his name but he played pretty well against Villanova.”
By the end of the evening everyone knew the name of Justin Patton as he dominated the St. John’s frontcourt, intimidating them into misses on layups and put back attempt, while scoring 25 points and taking in 9 rebounds.
The game started with energized but fruitless attempts by the Johnnies on the offensive glass and a shot clock violation at 16:46. Fans in the stands were observing, “This could be a long game” even four minutes in.
Creighton’s husky 6’3 guard, Khyri Thomas - known to be a very good defender - was shadowing Shamorie Ponds all over the court, even when he did not have the ball, and successfully limited his touches throughout the first half.
As a result Creighton jumped out to a 7-0 lead until Tariq Owens broke the ice for the Johnnies with a 15-foot jumper from the right wing at the 15:58 mark.
Marcus LoVett came alive hitting a three and a Shamorie Ponds drive followed by a Ponds fade away from the key reduced the lead to 13 to 11 with 11:35 to go. But this was as close as the Red Storm would come.
Justin Patton was fouled on an inbounds play and made one of two foul shots. Then a frustrating sequence of three misses by Johnnies, including a missed layup by Darien Williams at the 10:05 mark, began the downward spiral.
Creighton ended the half with a 12 to 2 run, featuring several fast break baskets and feeds to Patton inside who was unstoppable although Johnnies defenders established defensive position on him.
Although losing 44 to 26 at the half the crowd remained positive. “If we can full court press them and cut the lead to ten at the beginning of the half, it will be anyone’s game,” an optimistic friend shared with a colleague.
But another fan replied, “It looks like it will be Creighton’s night.”
Creighton extended its lead at the beginning of the second half to 50 to 26 and Carnesecca Arena became quiet. Then at the 16:20 mark, Mussini and LoVett hit consecutive threes and the crowd came alive. At the 9:40 mark a Ponds drive and a foul brought the crowd to its feet.
The fan who declared it was to be Creighton’s night advised, “I was wrong … we are coming back to win”.
Optimism was in the air. The Red Storm continued a surge to reduce the deficit to eight points on another LoVett drive with 6:15 remaining but that is as close as the Johnnies got.
The Johnnies continued to press to the end and the crowd was with them with chants of “Defense … defense” after even small surges to reduce the deficit. But Creighton point guard, Maurice Watson, broke all attempts at the press and the Bluejays were never truly threatened despite an energized effort by the Red Storm in the second half.
Three Takeaways from the Game
Rebounding and Turnovers: Despite the clear advantage under the basket on the offensive end for Creighton the Johnnies held their own in the rebounding statistics gathering 40 rebounds to Creighton’s 40. However, despite gathering 14 offensive rebounds, there were few put back baskets for the Johnnies as Creighton blocked or intimidated many shots, particularly earlier in the game.
Despite excellent pressure placed on the ball by Creighton, St. John’s kept their turnovers low at 8. This is significantly less than in other recent games.
Defense: Creighton’s defense in the first half was stifling. There few easy shots and, with the exception of a Bashir Ahmed dunk off of a steal and feed by Malik Ellison, there were no fast break baskets.
The Johnnies matched that defensive effort early on but seemed to wear down in the last ten minutes of the first half, often failing to get back on defense after both made and missed shots allowing Creighton to score many fast break baskets.
After the DePaul win Coach Mullin spoke about the need to play a full forty minutes each evening. Against a fast breaking team like Creighton, St. John’s needed to play intensive defense every second such a skilled team has the ball.
The ability of Creighton guards to drive into the key opened the door for easy layups or passes to frontline players on back door dunks. Some of the most problematic defensive moments for the Johnnies came after near misses on drives to the basket or three point attempts that rimmed in and out. Players need to remain focused even after such frustrating moment, which every game will bring.
It continues to be a Guard’s Game
With the exception of 12 points by Tariq Owens and a driving basket by Amar Alibegovic, this was a guard’s game. LoVett and Ponds continued to provide offense, particularly on drives to the basket in the second half and Federico Mussini came back from his illness with a timely three and a nice drive to the basket off a feed from Darien Williams.
In addition, for the team to move forward the frontcourt has to complement the play of the guards offensively. Owens did his part, particularly in the first half. In recent games the Johnnies worked successfully off the high post with Ahmed taking feeds there and driving to the hoop instead of commencing his drives from the wing. Might this be an option in future games?
The Schedule Gets Tougher
It is on to road games at Xavier and Georgetown and then perhaps the game of the year for the Johnnies – the home game against Villanova on January 14.
This fan still believes there is something special about this year’s team.
Coach Mullin states that the goal is to review every performance, learn from mistakes made and improve each game. Creighton was a talented, skilled team and had a point guard in Watson who negated some of the things St. John’s does best on defense. Not every team in the Big East has a Maurice Watson on their team.
A tough defeat to a talented team is no reason to stop believing.