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Three Takeaways: team speed, defense, guard rebounding

St. John’s crushes Nebraska; the defense shines and the guards sparkle.

Sedee Keita, Amar Alibegovic & walk-ons cheer the team on
Wendell Cruz

It is fifteen minutes to game time and the stands are sparsely filled, particularly the student section behind the basket. Three self-described “diehard fans” share their thoughts.

“Will Jordan Brown sign with us?”

“If we can rebound evenly with our opponents, we will do well this year.”

A fifth place finish in the Big East was their prediction for the team with a NCAA bid, “if we can rebound”.

Ten minutes to the start of the game. “Why are so few students attending?” was the question to a student; and the students’ reply was, “it’s the start time. Some students have late classes and only the diehards will attend at 6:30. A start time of 7:30 will bring out more students.”

The Red Storm appeared with five minutes to go and there was a seriousness about the team not seen in earlier games. “Warm ups had less showboating,” one fan observed. A seasoned fan shared, “I think they are more ready today”.

First Half action

Nebraska opened with a man-to-man defense and by the 19:38 mark, had a steal, a layup and a foul called on Marvin Clark II. Several “oh …no!” and “not Clark” exclamations could be heard from St. John’s fans, watching the starting forward pick up yet another foul; he has had foul trouble in each St. John’s game.

It did not take long for Clark to redeem himself as twenty seconds later he tipped in a Marcus LoVett miss.

At 17:24 Shamorie Ponds attacked the basket with a double spin move to cut the Nebraska lead to 5-4. It was the first of several acrobatic plays by Ponds. “Defense … defense” was the response of the Carnesecca Arena, seeing the team settle in.

Shortly thereafter, Simon stole the ball from a Cornhusker attacker. At 16:25, Clark drove the baseline and was fouled. He hit two foul shots and the Red Storm were ahead to stay.

“Let’s go Johnnies” filled the arena, aided by the student band, which had moved from the upper corner of the arena to a position in back of the basket. It was a great placement as the band rocked the arena.

Red suit guy with Kassoum Yakwe cut-out
Wendell Cruz

Tariq Owens entered the game and grabbed a rebound on the first Nebraska missed shot then, at 15:22, scored on a give and go from LoVett. St. John’s led 8-5.

An Owens block and a Simon three from the right corner made it 11-5 at 14:55. After a Cornhusker score, LoVett drove towards the basket with a behind the back dribble, stepped back and nailed a jumper from the foul line. Both LoVett and Ponds seemed unstoppable by Cornhusker defenders.

At the 10:51 timeout St. John’s was leading 17-11 despite only hitting 17% of their three point attempts and 40% of their free throws. To the delight of the St. John’s faithful, the team was outrebounding Nebraska 15-10 and the Cornhuskers were not making any putback baskets.

Glynn Watson, Jr., Nebraska’s talented guard, picked up his second foul at the 9: 38 mark and had to leave the game, having scored only one point.

The Johnnies’ man-to-man defense was stifling him and his teammates on every play, pressuring the ball and dropping into the passing lanes. St. John’s defenders were a step quicker than their opponents. The result was many Cornhusker field goal attempts being taken as the shot clock was winding down.

At the six-minute mark Nebraska shifted to a zone defense. St. John’s responded with quick ball movement, freeing up Bashir Ahmed for a corner three. Shortly thereafter, Ponds broke down the zone with a drive from the left side and a six-foot teardrop shot on which a Cornhusker defender was called for goal tending.

The Johnnies were well ahead at the end of the half until Nebraska hit a three point attempt with time running down. A St. John’s foul by Bashir Ahmed led to a four-point play and diminished the lead to 11 points. However, LoVett responded to finish the half. With six seconds on the clock he drove the length of the court and laid the ball in as time expired.

Marcus LoVett drives
Wendell Cruz

During the first half St. John’s had six steals and five blocks, four by Tariq Owens. Nebraska registered eleven turnovers to a scant four by St. John’s. Although shooting just 22% from three point range, the Johnnies field goal percentage was 40% aided by many successful fast break buckets.

Second Half

Remembering the beginning of the second half against Central Connecticut (CCSU adjustments brought Central Connecticut back into the game), Red Storm fans were pensive as the second half began.

Rightfully so. Nebraska hit two quick baskets and a technical foul on the St. John’s bench with its subsequent foul shot reduced the Johnnies lead to eight in less than a minute.

Nebraska did have some success at the beginning of the second half, feeding the ball inside with kick outs to the corner for three-point shots. However, even with this momentary success, they were unable to stop the Johnnies on defense. Ponds and LoVett were uncontainable and drove to the basket hitting layups seemingly at will. Zone defense did not slow the Johnnies. Even Kassoum Yakwe, playing a stellar defensive game, joined the scoring with two free throws at the 11:20 mark.

Steals, dunks and circus-like assists were to follow but it was the Johnnies defense that truly sparkled. Nothing came easy for the Cornhuskers and they were reduced to taking off-balance threes as the game wore on.

It was a sound victory with the Red Storm dominating all areas of the game.

“Bring on the Blue Devils … not from Central Connecticut but the ones from Duke,” a younger fan called out.

An older fan replied, “Baby steps … for now, baby steps”.

St John’s took a significant step forward with an impactful win over a Nebraska team, which had a clear size advantage this evening.

Three Takeaways

Team Speed wins games

Fans anticipated a battle between the size and experience of the Nebraska squad versus the speed of the Red Storm.

No one expected the Red Storm to “have their way” with the Cornhuskers. LoVett and Ponds were unstoppable. In the last ten minutes of the game Coach Mullin directed the team, on offensive sets, to take close to ten seconds off each set as he knew that the remaining twenty seconds was plenty of time for St. John’s guards to break down the Cornhuskers.

And it wasn’t just LoVett and Ponds. Simon and Ahmed were also able to take the ball to the rim successfully on both fast breaks and set plays.

Justin Simon, post-dunk

Defense wins games

When St. John’s scores 79 points in a game, the assumption would be that it was the three point shooting. Not so today. The Johnnies shot 29% from three point land. It was the defense that turned over the Cornhuskers 16 times, which provided a plethora of fast break opportunities.

The defense was stifling. Nebraska never felt comfortable except for a short period at the beginning of the second half. Their success was short lived as Red Storm defenders, recognizing the strategy, responded. The Johnnies ended the game with ten blocks and eight steals and enough pressure to limit the Cornhuskers to 28% shooting overall. Everyone participated in this effort with Tariq Owens leading the way with six blocked shots.

Ponds, LoVett, Simon … they Rebound too

Every game seems to bring improvement of the three starting guards. This game, their rebounding shone.

The trio had twenty two of the Red Storm’s 46 rebounds. As St. John’s front line players would box out the Nebraska forwards, the guards would swoop in behind them for a rebound and subsequent fast break. Johnnie’s fans remember two years ago when a fast break basket was a rarity. Not 2017-18.

Simon brought down 12 rebounds, his second straight double digit rebounding effort.

Conclusion

Fans leaving the arena were energized. Recognizing there was a larger crowd but not a full arena, a fan stated that winning will bring the fans out. “Enthusiastic fans bring out the best in the players,” he said.

The simple move of the band to a place behind the basket added energy to the crowd. The determination on the faces of the Red Storm players brought an intensity from the start of the game to the last minute.

Shamorie Ponds encouraged the crowd
Wendell Cruz

It appears that the Red Storm have settled on an eight-man rotation. Fans have expressed concern about a weak bench but should think back to the last 20-win season by St. Johns (2014-15). That team was dominated by guards (Harrison, Green and Jordan) like this year’s team. That year’s bench was Christian Jones, Felix Balamou and Jamaal Branch compared to Owens, Yakwe and Trimble this year.

The bench strength seems the same. Of course the 2014-15 team had Sir`Dominic Pointer stepping up to become an all-league player during his senior year. Might Bashir Ahmed take the challenge and do the same?