The grit and determination, evident in the “almost” comeback against Xavier on January 29th, continued two nights ago a Marquette team that was assessed as a bubble contender for the upcoming NCAA tournament.
But fans rightly noted that the Big East is “all about match ups” and this seemed to be a contest between two guard-oriented teams.
Nevertheless, fans also expressed concern about the depth of the Marquette squad. Six players averaged more than ten points a game. More grit and determination was needed on the defensive end to bring about a St. John’s victory. And St. John’s showed it on Wednesday. The Red Storm won, 86-72.
Tracking the first half
The game began with a Marcus LoVett steal and a drive for a layup. Everyone expected an explosion by the two freshmen guards LoVett and Shamorie Ponds. However, it soon became evident that the night would feature more than simply Ponds and LoVett. At 18:10 LoVett drove to the basket. As the Marquette defense began to collapse on him he saw Kassoum Yakwe cutting to the basket. A quick pass led to a Yakwe two-foot bucket on his way to 12 points in the first half of the game.
Soon after Bashir Ahmed drove for the hoop on the left side for the first of his 23 points. One fan noted that “Ahmed is too quick for Eagle defenders. He will be the game’s leading scorer.” To the delight of St. John’s fans the fan’s prophecy became true.
St. John’s appeared to be playing focused defense but, as fans had feared, Marquette sharpshooters, notably 5 foot 10 inch Andrew Rowsey, got hot. When he hit a 25 footer and was fouled by Federico Mussini, completing a four point play, Marquette led by three at the 12:56 mark of the first half.
At the 10:30 mark Coach Mullin reinserted Malik Ellison into the game to track Rousey when Marquette had the ball and Ellison was able to pressure him, slowing but not stopping his offense. At 9:11 Yakwe set a nice screen for LoVett and then cut to the basket. LoVett made a perfect pass and Yakwe laid the ball in. St. John’s had cut the lead to three. At 8:20 a block by Tariq Owens led to a Ponds fade away jumper and the Johnnies were down by one. Shortly thereafter, Owens fed Ponds cutting to the basket for a layup and St. John’s led by one.
The St. John’s comeback was delayed by some sloppy, overly aggressive ballhandling by St. John’s guards. On several occasions they were caught driving the baseline, trapped between the baseline and Marquette defenders.
Adjustments were made and these errors disappeared in the second half of the game.
At the 2:15 mark of the first half, a Mussini three and an Ahmed drive from the top of the circle, followed by a foul shot, put St. John’s ahead by three, 38 to 35. Then it became the Shamorie Ponds show with a 22-footer from the top of the key and two steals leading to layups. St. John’s led at the half 45-37.
St. John’s fans expressed cautious optimism. They remembered leading Providence by about the same amount only to squander the lead at the beginning of the second half. Yet fans also noted the play of Yakwe and Owens, who were neutralizing, if not outplaying the frontline of Marquette.
During the intermission a long time St. John’s fan from the Joe Lapchick years (1960’s) expressed an opinion that excitement is returning to St. John’s basketball. “We can play with anyone in the Big East and can be successful when opponents cannot counter the speed of our guards.”
In looking toward the future he stated that there was a time almost every New York City kid wanted to play for St. John’s. “The holiday Festival was one of the great tournaments of the year,” he lamented. “Sixteen teams, chosen after the season began, had the Old Garden of 18,000 seats filled every evening.”
The NIT was also big. He recalled a Marquette- St. John’s match up in the 1970 NIT tournament. Marquette, coached by Al McGuire and led by Dean Meminger, had defeated Pete Maravich from LSU to face St. John’s in the finals. In order to get to the finals St. John’s, coached by Lou Carnesecca, defeated a Bobby Knight-coached Army team, 60-59.
“Imagine Bobby Knight, Al McGuire, and Lou Carnesecca coaching three of the four finalists in the NIT.” Marquette won the championship 65 to 53. What a time for New York City basketball.
“Coach Chris Mullin may be the man to bring back college basketball to New York and fill the Garden again,” he mused.
Tracking the second half
With optimism in mind fans saw the halftime advantage drop to four after Marquette went into a zone defense and a three pointer by Rousey at the 16 minute mark. Inexplicably Marquette shifted back to a man to man defense and St, John’s pulled ahead.
At the 13:45 mark 6 foot 11 inch Marquette center Luke Fischer went for a dunk and Owens blocked the shot leading to a LoVett break out. Hitting Ahmed in the corner, he drained a three and a fan observed, “when he sets his feet prior to shooting a three, he is deadly”. The score was 63 to 51 St. John’s.
A Yakwe steal and a Ponds push up court set up a LoVett three pointer and the lead was fifteen. The chant “defense … defense” again arose amidst the crowd, loving the run and hoping for a blowout.
Marquette shifted back to the zone defense and ran off a ten point run.
It ended with a Mussini three from the corner at the 8:32 mark, assisted by LoVett. From that point on St. John’s regained control of the game.
With 4:44 to play Ahmed stole the ball and drove to the basket for a 78-64 lead and everyone standing, cheering, and chanting “let’s Go Johnnies”.
With 3:39 left in the game Owens missed a ten footer from inside the paint. Marquette broke out on a fastbreak. Three Johnnies sprinted down the court to defend and as Haanif Cheatham of Marquette was about to shoot. Marcus LoVett disrupted the layup just enough to cause a Marquette turnover. The hustle by LoVett exemplified the grit and determination that seems to have taken over this team.
For the game St. John’s had a respectable 12 turnovers while Marquette, known for protecting the ball, had seventeen due to constant pressure by Johnnies defenders for the entire game. It became apparent that St. John’s is capable of competing with any team in the Big East, particularly when playing the more balanced offense displayed against Marquette.
Kassoum Yakwe: St. John’s guards have regularly attempted to engage Yakwe in the offense at the beginning of games this year. Most of the time it has been a fleeting effort.
Even though he missed his first shot, Yakwe kept setting picks and cutting to the basket off of them. Guards found him and he rewarded them with fourteen points. In addition Yakwe had 6 rebounds, 3 blocks and a steal. It was a complete game for an athletic forward, willing to stand firm guarding the middle of the paint on defense.
Bashir Ahmed: Although showing flashes of offensive prowess during the year, Ahmed demonstrated more of a controlled game against Marquette.
His patience on drives, commencing from the middle of the court rather than from the baseline, led to him shooting 8 for 17 from the floor. He also made five out of five foul shots, several being “old time three-point plays.”
Leading the team in scoring with 23 points, Ahmed’s attacking the basket broke down the Marquette zone defense focused on taking away Red Storm three point attempts.
Consistency on Defense: Marquette is a well-coached team and sets effective screens for its shooters. St. John’s made adjustments throughout the game and the hot shooting at the beginning of the game for Marquette from three point territory (10 for 19 at one point) was reduced to hitting just three of thirteen for the last sixteen minutes of the game.
The shot-blocking of Owens and Yakwe discouraged Marquette front line players from attacking the basket. The play by LoVett near the end of the second half is an example of the determination of St. John’s defenders.
Another Shot at the Champs
Villanova’s guard oriented team provides another positive match up for the Red Storm but the Johnnies must rebound better than in the January 14th game won by Villanova.
Villlanova coach Jay Wright stated after the game that, for most of the game, St. John’s outplayed his team. Grit and determination has become a characteristic of this Johnnies team. Coupled with guard speed and deadly three point shooting anything can happen – even in Philadelphia. Fans say – “Let’s Go Johnnies”.