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Three takeaways: St. Johns holds down Iona

Balanced scoring, holding a fifth opponent under 60 points

Tariq Owens slam
Wendell Cruz

During the pre-game warmups, the first on the Madison Square Garden floor, fans watched Bryan Trimble Jr. and Shamorie Ponds hit three pointer after three pointer from twenty plus feet.

It looked to be a productive night for the long distance marksmen before the game.

Those who watched the game know that those practice shots were the last three-pointers to go in for the St. John’s Red Storm for the night, despite the 69-59 final score over Iona.

Wendell Cruz

St. John’s (69) vs Iona (59): first half

Tariq Owens won the tap, but the Red Storm turned the ball over while working the ball around the Iona zone.

After Iona took the lead on a Rickey McGill three pointer St. Johns began attacking the zone by feeding Justin Simon and, to a lesser degree, Bashir Ahmed, in the high post. At the 18:46 mark Simon took a feed and began driving to the basket. The Gael defense collapsed towards him and he quickly fed Owens in the left corner for a ten-footer and the Red Storm’s first points.

At 16:52 Zach Lewis hit a three and Iona led 6-2. However, twenty seconds later it was Ahmed’s turn to set up in the high post and hit Marvin Clark under the basket for a turn around three footer, cutting the Gael lead to two.

St. Johns’ pressure created a thirty second penalty on the next Iona possession, which was followed by a beautiful feed by Ponds to Simon for a backdoor slam.

Wendell Cruz

The score was now 6-6. Ahmed hit the offensive glass for a put back and energized the Johnnies to a 12-8 lead at the 12:11 mark. At this moment in the contest St. Johns had three blocked shots while Iona had none.

Justin Simon’s aggressive attacking of the basket broke down the Gaels’ zone defense and continued to open up holes for shots, layups for himself, or passes to teammates as the zone rotated to defend him. The strategy appeared to be working. In addition at the 7:30 mark he stole an Iona pass and drove down to a resounding dunk and a 21-13 lead.

Fans anticipated St. Johns would pull away from a less athletic Iona team.

But Iona was not ready to go shopping at Macy’s. New Rochelle’s finest Division I team hit two threes, reducing the lead to 21-19 with four minutes left in the half. Of their nineteen points, twelve came on three pointers.

Coach Mullin made an adjustment with Shamorie Ponds setting up in the high post, hoping to get him going. He missed his first layup attempt but, at 2:20, stole the ball and was fouled attacking the basket. He made two foul shots, his first points in the game - which gave St. Johns a 25-19 lead.

The Gaels’ fifth three of the half by Deyshonee Much made the score 25-22 and sloppy Red Storm play at the end of the half allowed the Gaels to tie the score at halftime.

Fans all agreed that St. Johns had outplayed Iona. They forced several turnovers and blocked six shots. But these efforts were thwarted by the Gaels’ margin in rebounding as they outrebounded the Johnnies 25-16. Fans felt confident that the Johnnies would pull away in the second half behind their aggressive defense and the expectation that the team would begin making their three point attempts.

Festive band
Wendell Cruz

St. John’s vs Iona: second half

Ponds began the second half, once again, in the high post on offense. He received a pass and he responded by driving left for his first field goal of the game. At 18:37 Ahmed attacked the offensive boards, corralling three rebounds on one possession and was fouled on his third put back attempt. He hit one of two free throws and St. John’s led 28-25.

Iona did not score for more than three minutes into the half as the Johnnies were pressuring the ball twenty feet from the basket; open looks for the Gaels were rare. St. John’s pressure led to two additional 30 second violations, and many Iona shots were being taken with five seconds or less on the shot clock (and were not good looks).

Meanwhile, the Red Storm were at full throttle for once in the game. At the 16:20 mark, Justin Simon started a fast break with a pass to Clark, who fed Ponds for a driving layup. He was pushed in the back and the Iona defender, Deyshonee Much, was charged with a flagrant foul, giving Ponds two additional shots and giving St. John’s the ball. Suddenly St. John’s was up by nine points.

During the 15:25 time out, a fan with a Marcus Hatten jersey was given the opportunity to shoot free throws over a thirty seconds. Each free throw was worth $250.00 and fans cheered as he made his first three (worth $750!) but missed his fourth. There was time for one more shot, and our Marcus Hatten imitator coolly hit his last attempt for a thousand dollar prize.

After the timeout the defensive pressure mounted and the Gaels’ shooting percentage decreased. The first team lineup, led by Ponds, built a twenty point lead at the 11:12 mark. However, the Gaels never quit.

Justin Simon & Bashir Ahmed defend Deyshonee Much
Wendell Cruz

St. John’s fans expressed a confidence that was soon to be tested. At the seven minute mark of the half Deyshonee Much of Iona hit a three and was fouled, all with a second left on the 30 second shot clock. Good defense was not quite good enough. He hit the free throw and suddenly the score was 58-47.

With 5:10 to play, a three by Iona junior Rickey McGill made the score 58-51 and the Iona crowd became energized. But not for long - at 4:22 Simon drove from the foul line and laid the ball in with his left hand and drew a foul. He hit the foul shot for a ten point lead and the Iona surge was over.

Three Takeaways

Defense … defense

The “this is my turf” attitude on defense has been impressive all season, and improving each game. Iona came into the game averaging 77.4 points per game and, once again, the Johnnies held an opponent under 60 points in a game.

E.J. Crawford takes a tough shot
Wendell Cruz

In the beginning of the season opponents, at times, would identify a defensive weakness in the Johnnies and exploit it. Central Connecticut came out in the second half attacking the basket and the Johnnies had to make an adjustment to stop their run. Other teams found weaknesses in the defense by driving then kicking the ball out to the corners for open threes.

There did not appear to be any weaknesses for Iona to exploit. Yes, Iona hit ten three pointers, accounting for more than fifty percent of their scoring, but the Gaels also took 32 shots to make them. One of the made shots came when Ponds was tying his shoe and the official allowed Iona to take the ball out before he finished. It was Ponds’s man who made the open three.

The defense was so suffocating that Iona constantly had less than five seconds when attempting their first shot. All this without Marcus Lovett, the disruptor on defense.

Passing crisp but errant shooting

The Johnnies moved the ball well; but there were times that the Johnnies were driving relentlessly to the rim and taking off-balance and out of control shots as the Iona defense collapsed drivers. The tendency to look for the open man was forgotten as aggressive attacking of the basket took over.

The Johnnies have used this plan of attack in previous games. It still needs some fine tuning to become a successful response to a top notch zone defense.

The offense had all five starters scoring in double figures; but while the reserves have provided defensive support, they have provided little scoring.

Three-less winning

Despite the warm up promise, this was not to be a night for the three-point shooters. The Johnnies shot 0/12 from beyond the three-point arc. Scoring came off drives to the basket or feeds by Red Storm guards to teammates cutting to the basket.

Shamorie Ponds drives
Wendell Cruz

Once again missing Marcus LoVett was significant as, of the guards, he has been the most accurate three point shooter.

Against Big East zone defenses someone will have to hit the three-point shot consistently. There is work to be done by all Johnnies under the tutelage of coaches Mullin and Mitch Richmond, three point specialists throughout their careers.

Prospects for the Future

There is no debate that stout defenses win games. The shot blocking of Owens and Yakwe on the backline plus the aggressive pressure on opponents twenty feet from the basket is paying dividends.

Once LoVett rejoins the team the pressure on opponents’ guards will increase. In the first Villanova game a year ago, a Villanova fan commented that no one gave star guard Jalen Brunson more trouble than LoVett.

The schedule gets more challenging but the concerns on offense are addressable. The team is aggressive on both ends of the floor and the development of three-point shooting will make the Johnnies a tough opponent.

There are five games against three top ten teams on the upcoming schedule; three are at home.

Assuming that Marcus LoVett is able to recover from his injury, winning two of the five will not be an impossible task as this team continues to progress in all aspects of the game. Winning nine of the remaining fifteen games would leave the team with a likely NCAA bid (in my prediction) at 20-13.

Does anyone agree?