St. John’s had to overcome a slow start against a determined but athletically inferior team. In the second half, a focused Johnnies team overcame many of its first half challenges and rolled to a convincing 90-55 win over the Sacred Heart Pioneers.
News that Marcus LoVett was not in uniform rustled through the crowd. Some fans voiced concerns, while others countered that this would be a test for his teammates to step up their game to fill Lovett’s shoes, particularly on defense.
Meanwhile, as the clock counted down to the anthem and tip off, the Red Storm were draining threes from all around the court in their warmups. Fans wondered how the Red Storm would respond to an expected zone defense, given the team’s struggles in the previous two games.
On the first Sacred Heart possession, chants of “Defense … defense” boisterously filled Carnesecca Arena. Despite the chants, the Sacred Heart Pioneers jumped out to a 5-0 advantage. St. John’s was taking and missing three point attempts. “They are really playing good defense,” one attendee said. “The shooting percentage will return”.
It took almost three minutes before steal from the hands of Sacred Heart’s Sean Hoehn led to a nice transition pass from Shamorie Ponds to Justin Simon led to a Simon dunk that revved the crowd and the Red Storm were on the board, trailing 5-2.
Shortly, Yakwe drew a charge and a fan commented, “I think he is playing much better.” The entire Johnnies team seemed to be playing better on defense as they pressured the Pioneers into five turnovers in the first five minutes of the game.
The lead changed several times over the next five minutes. With Sacred Heart leading at the ten minute mark, the Pioneers went into the expected zone. Red Storm fans wondered if this was to be a challenge without Marcus Lovett to help break down the zone.
Instead of stalling, the Johnnies passed the ball several times around the zone, finding Amar Alebegovic free in the corner for a three pointer and a 17-16 lead.
It was the only time Sacred Heart set up in a zone during the game.
That was also the beginning of a 10-0 run with an exhilarating Ahmed to Ponds to Simon break finishing with a Simon dunk in the midst of the run. At the seven minute mark St. John’s led 24-16.
The runaway St. John’s fans were now anticipating was delayed as the Pioneers became hot from three point land. Over the remainder of the half Zach Radz and fellow guard Kinnon LaRose began hitting three; the Johnnies found the game tied after an 8-0 Sacred Heart run. Marvin Clark’s offensive rebound in the waning seconds of the half created a Pioneer foul and the two free throws he made gave the Red Storm a 36-34 lead at the half.
Fans agreed that it was a puzzling half as there was great energy on defense.
The Red Storm had three blocked shots and seven steals as evidence. However, the Pioneers countered with 64% shooting from deep and 52% overall. In contrast, St. John’s shot 27% from three point land and 42% overall.
The defensive effort looked to be there, but it appeared the energy was focused mostly on clogging passing lanes and double teaming when the Pioneers fed the ball under the basket. This strategy allowed Radz and Larose to find open looks from the corners.
Fans were confident as the second half began and more than a win was anticipated. One fan, attending his first game this year, was heard commenting, “Let’s have a win and shut their three point shooting out in the second half.”
After exchanging baskets in the first minute of play the Red Storm went on a 33-4 run over the next eleven minutes.
All eight scholarship players contributed. In order to slow the three point shooting Ahmed was picking up LaRose on defense and Ponds was shadowing Radz. The crowd, not to be left out, was chanting “defense … defense” with a conviction that they could indeed bring energy to the Red Storm players.
As the defense became focused, the game broke open into the a high end offensive game. Ponds and Clark both came alive on drives to the baskets and on three pointers.
At the 10:49 mark with the Red Storm up by fifteen, Simon slowed the pace and directed his teammates into set positions. He drove to the right, pulled up and threw a perfect alley-oop pass to Owens who soared well above the rim to guide the ball with his left hand through the net. The crowd rose and a “wow… unreal” could be heard. This was the first of several Simon-to-Owens orchestrated dunks throughout the remainder of the game.
At the 10:25 mark Ponds showed off deft passing of his own by stealing the ball, driving to the basket and making a perfect behind the back pass to Simon on his left flank leading to a Simon dunk.
The Johnnies never let up, playing focused defense and taking quality shots to the end. It was a game in which athleticism and speed prevailed, leaving an exuberated crowd as they left with hopes for a successful west coast swing this coming week - with or without LoVett.
We did not learn about attacking the zone
It certainly wasn’t the fault of the Johnnies. Sacred Heart went to the zone on one play and it resulted in a Red Storm three pointer. After that, it was man-to-man throughout the game.
What can be noted is the Red Storm’s ability to shoot the three, a significant counter to any zone defense. In the first half the Johnnies shot 27% beyond the arc. Twenty-seven percent is not going to be a success against the equally athletic teams the Johnnies will be facing in coming games.
In the second half the team’s three point percentage rose to 35% at the 11:26 mark and to an encouraging 38% at the end of the game. However, this improved shooting came as the Johnnies were establishing dominance over a Sacred Heart team unable to keep up with the Johnnies fast-paced offense.
In the challenges that lie ahead hitting threes in the mid to upper thirty percentage range will be needed to counter the skills of top teams the Red Storm will be facing.
Many stars on this team
When the expected fortunes and challenges of the Johnnies are discussed, the conversation usually begins with Ponds and LoVett and rightfully so. They established their skills a year ago and both are more complete players this year.
But there have been games when Justin Simon was the leader on the court.
Other times it was Marvin Clark and on other occasions, through his defensive play, Tariq Owens was a deciding factor in the game.
In today’s game, each of these players ably filled in for the loss of production Marcus LoVett would have provided. Owens and Clark rebounded. Clark, Ponds, Ahmed and even Alibegovic and Trimble hit three pointers. Simon made spectacular passes and, when receiving a pass on a break, would not be denied. Ahmed led the way during the first half during which the team struggled.
Five players, led by Ponds’ 22 points scored in double figures. In addition five players had five or more rebounds led by Owens with 11.
It was a team effort that will need to be repeated throughout the remainder of the season.
As a starting senior Ahmed certainly understands this is his last go-round with the Red Storm. He has become more team-oriented, less reckless while not giving up aggressiveness when aggressive play is needed. Ahmed is one of the strong bodied Johnnies, along with Marvin Clark, that will be able to stand strong against the more powerful opponents to come.
In this game, Ahmed led the way when the team needed him the most - throughout the first half.
His stats for the game were 13 points on 5 of 7 shooting, 2 of 3 from three. Fans observed him playing defense, making steals (3) and outlet passes on breaks and containing Kinnon LaRose in the second half after LaRose had torched the Johnnies with four threes in the first half.
Ahmed has reduced his turnover totals in games and had only one in 28 minutes of play against Sacred Heart. Overall an outstanding performance in all aspects of the game that Red Storm fans are hoping will be repeated throughout the year.