Coach Chris Mullin, in a Big East conference call on February 9th, depicted St. John’s upcoming game with Seton Hall as a “big rivalry game.” The Red Storm were clearly ready for the rivalry.
Fans in the Stands were anxiously optimistic prior to the game. The major concerns fans expressed were:
- The Red Storm had to compete with the front court of Seton Hall, which so thoroughly dominated them on January 22, 2017.
- Six foot, six inch, slashing forward Desi Rodriguez of Seton Hall would be a difficult matchup for Red Storm players.
- One long time season ticket holder advised, “We need at least ten three-point baskets to win this game.”
The Red Storm began the game with a taller lineup of Tariq Owens, Bashir Ahmed, Shamorie Ponds, Malik Ellison and Kassoum Yakwe. A sloppy start by St. John’s included two turnovers and a missed jumper. At the 17:58 mark Owens scored the Red Storm’s first points on an offensive rebound putback.
Fans were encouraged by the energy of Owens and Yakwe on the defensive end, taking charges and forcing Seton Hall star, Angel Delgado, out of his comfort position to the side of the basket. In addition the fans were now seeing offensive rebounding points. The front court was ready to “do Battle”.
Seton Hall jumped out to an early 5 to 2 lead when Malik Ellison picked up his second foul at the 16:33 mark. Ellison and Ahmed were replaced by Marcus LoVett and Federico Mussini.
Seton Hall extended its lead to 7 to 2 but then the substitutions began to pay dividends. LoVett hit a driving layup and shortly thereafter stole the ball. He pushed the ball up the court then fed Mussini, who was fouled going up for a layup. He made one of two free throws at the 14:57 mark.
Soon after an Ahmed drive followed by a Ponds drive tied the score at 9 to 9. Fans were commenting that “the defense is playing tight but the shooting needs to improve.” Other fans recognized that the aggressive defense of Seton Hall challenging Red Storm players, in part, accounted for their difficulty in scoring.
A LoVett drive followed and St. John’s led 13-12. Fans were heard responding with the chant, “Defense … defense.”
Ellison returned to the game but, at the 8:26 mark picked up his third foul. He was taken out and St. John’s was going to have to defend Seton Hall without one of their best defenders.
With the score tied at 4:42 left to play in the first half Owens blocked a drive by Myles Powell of Seton Hall and hustled down the court to dunk a missed shot by Marcus LoVett.
Fans rose to their feet as the Garden erupted in cheers for the play of Owens. It led to an energized St. John’s rally begun by a LoVett steal, an Ahmed three and a three by Ponds, sandwiched around a drive by the Hall’s Desi Rodriguez. These were the first three point baskets by the Red Storm in the game. Suddenly the Red Storm were up by five.
At the 1:11 mark Owens demonstrated newly acquired offensive skills, hitting a nice left handed hook from five feet out. It was a thing of beauty. At the end of the half St. John’s led 37 to 27. Owens was the Johnnies’ top rebounder with eight while Angel Delgado had six for Seton Hall.
St. John’s fans were asked, “What made the difference for St. John’s that they are leading by ten points a good team that soundly beat them a month ago?”
One fan assertively stated, “Tariq Owens … his play made all of the difference”.
A second fan stated that it was “excellent defense and blocking out,” while a third referenced the “speed and quickness of LoVett and Ponds. No one on Seton Hall can stay with them.”
Although Seton Hall held a rebounding lead over the Red Storm, it was a slight lead at halftime. Seton Hall also was held to 29% shooting by a stout Red Storm defense that made shots in the paint difficult and forced deflections - Seton Hall had committed ten turnovers. By comparison, St. John’s shot 42% for the half and only had four turnovers.
Fans became anxious at the beginning of the second half when Seton Hall began finding Delgado in more comfortable positions to the left of the basket. After two scores by Delgado the lead was trimmed to 39 to 31. Chants of “defense … defense” came from the crowd calling on the Red Storm to recommit to the effective defense of the first half.
Khadeen Carrington of Seton Hall hit a driving layup to cut the lead to six at the 17:29 mark. However, an unanticipated surge of offense came from reserve Amar Alibegovic. Alibegovic totaled seven points in a minute and a half to help build a St. John’s lead that rose to 50-37 at the 13:34 mark. Seton Hall, in response, called timeout.
At this point of the game St. John’s was battling on the boards with 25 rebounds to Seton Hall’s 32. However, more telling was the turnover count. St. John’s had five while Seton Hall had fourteen, almost three times as many.
This double digit lead continued until the 4:08 point in the second half when Carrington broke away for a layup, narrowing the lead to eight, 67 to 59. Seton Hall got no closer. At the two minute mark a feed from LoVett to Owens resulted in a dunk and the Garden once again began chanting “defense … defense”.
At the 37 second mark Owens rebounded a Ponds miss and the 30 second clock reset. The “Rivalry game” was over and the crowd was on its feet cheering and referencing “the best team defensive effort of the year.”
The Johnnies’ offense was fine without three point baskets. Fans shared their opinion at the onset that the Johnnies would need stellar three-point shooting against the stingy Seton Hall defense - ranked by KenPom as 33rd best in the nation. Although the team hit only three out of eleven attempts for 27%, the team more than made up for it by attacking the basket as well as demonstrating a sizzling fast break. The overall talents of both LoVett and Ponds seem to be developing each outing.
In addition, the frontcourt of Owens, Yakwe and Alibegovic scored 25 points, one of their highest outputs of the year. Many of the scores were put backs of offensive rebounds and both Alibegovic and Yakwe showed some skill shooting from the key.
Owens, Yakwe and Alibegovic. The trio did score 25 points on 10/19 shooting, but even more outstanding was their stellar defensive play. They held their ground against talented big men Angel Delgado and Michael Nzei of Seton Hall and blocked eight shots. St. John’s appears to be developing an impactful frontcourt as the season is progressing. The frontcourt is benefiting from good coaching and learning to do the little things, boxing out, stepping into passing lanes and playing defense with the body and not solely with the hands.
Free Throw Shooting: While protecting a lead, the ability of the team to hit free throws is critical. The team hit 19 of 21 for 90% for the game. The frontcourt seems to be developing an excellent touch from the free throw line and there is no recognizable week link for opponents to attempt to foul in late game situations.
It is on to Butler and Marquette.
Winners of four of the last seven games the Red Storm faces two consecutive road game against teams that they have beaten at home. Both Butler and Marquette are talented teams with talented big men.
However, the performance of the Johnnies frontcourt gives hope that the frontcourts of Butler and, particularly, Marquette can be neutralized. The exceptional speed of the St. John’s guards makes the Johnnies guards a difficult match up.
In the Big East road wins are difficult to come by but the Johnnies appear to be peaking at this time. Keep the faith and we will see everyone at the Garden on February 25th for a rematch with Georgetown.