“It is all about confidence,” one fan shared 45 minutes before the St. John’s/Providence basketball game on March 5, 2017 (which ended up an 86-75 loss for St. John’s). Perhaps it was this confidence-building that led St. John’s coaches to work one on one with Kassoum Yakwe on pick and roll moves to the basket a half hour before game time.
Season ticket holders shared their predictions for the game.
“A two-point win for St. John’s with Shamorie Ponds leading the way” was one confident prediction.
“An 80 to 75 St. John’s victory with Bashir Ahmed the leading scorer” was the second prediction received.
So what happened? How did the Johnnies fall short from the opening tip?
The game began with Marcus LoVett guarding junior guard Kyron Cartwright of Providence. This would be a key matchup during the game. Could LoVett hamper Cartwright’s play-making skills?
After Providence scored the first point, LoVett fed Yakwe who drove to the basket and was fouled. He made both of his free throws for a 2 to 1 St. John’s lead.
St. John’s remained in the lead until Cartwright hit 6’7” guard Jalen Lindsay for an open three and a 6 to 4 lead at the 18:00 mark. At 17:26 St. John’s lost track of the time clock and lost the ball on a thirty second violation. It foretold some erratic play which was to come.
A bad pass by Malik Ellison followed, and it was only a hustle play by Marcus LoVett that prevented a breakaway basket by Providence. However, by 15:11 Providence opened up a 12 - 5 lead on a dunk by Kalif Young.
At the 13:15 mark St. John’s had only two field goals and leading scorer Shamorie Ponds had no points. In the first six and a half minutes he not taken a shot.
Ponds would not be silent for long. During the next minute Ponds drove to the basket and was fouled. He hit two foul shots. He then stole the ball and fed Federico Mussini for an open three. Mussini missed it but Ponds corralled the rebound. At the 12:02 mark Ponds hit a three and St. John’s was down 12 - 10.
Chants of “Defense … defense” could be heard from the crowd. At this moment in the game Providence had turned the ball over six times to only two turnovers by St. John’s. The turnover margin was keeping St. John’s in the game despite shooting 20% on field goal attempts.
For the rest of the half a pattern emerged. Primarily:
- Cartwright beat his man driving into the paint.
- St. John’s defense collapsed upon him and he was adept at finding the open three point shooter.
- OR upon beating his man, St. John’s would switch off creating a mismatch of the three 6’7” inch guards being guarded by Mussini, LoVett or Ponds, all a half a foot shorter.
It became a very successful strategy.
On the other end of the court Providence switched from a man to man defense to an aggressive zone, pressuring St. John’s guards 18 to 20 feet from the basket. The Johnnies lack of an offensive force under the basket allowed this aggressive defense to be successful. At the 7:10 mark Providence led 25 - 15.
At the 6:56 mark Bashir Ahmed, who had been picking up fouls driving to the hoop, missed an open dunk on a nice feed from LoVett. At this point St. John’s had made only 2 of 13 shots and were being out hustled. They remained in the game by hitting 10 of 12 free throws.
One fan summed up the game to this point by stating, “Providence is getting possession of every fifty/fifty loose ball”.
With 56 seconds left in the second half Amar Alibegovic made a nice pass to a cutting Shamorie Ponds, who then fed an open Mussini. Mussini pump faked and caught Providence star, Rodney Bullock, in the air for his third foul. Mussini hit all three of his free throws. The Providence lead dropped to 33 to 24 and Providence fans responded with a boisterous “Let’s Go Friars … Let’s Go Friars.”
Some began to wonder who was the home team in the Garden.
Fans summarized the first half, led by Providence 37-25, as “too many breakdowns by the guards on defense” and “too many forced shots by the offense” in the first half. Providence’s defense, being switched between man- to-man and zone, probably caused the erratic play of the offense in the first half.
St. John’s was shooting 21% from the field and Providence was shooting 43% at the time.
A Ponds drive from the right and an Ahmed layup after grabbing a loose ball dropped the Providence lead to 37 to 29 and Red Storm fans became hopeful. “Defense … defense” could be heard in the Garden but it did not have the conviction of the “Let’s Go Friars” cheers of the first half.
There was intensity in this second half play at the beginning of the second half which could have been accentuated if Ahmed and/or Ellison had hit a couple of their three open three-pointers early in the second half. Unfortunately, the Johnnies’ cold shooting continued.
Providence stayed in an aggressive zone for most of the second half and for every Johnnies small spurt, they matched it mostly by feeding Diallo or 6’8” sophomore guard Isaiah Jackson under the basket for easy layups or short jump shots. Jackson, who was averaging 5 points per game, ended with 18.
One fan commented, “A lot of times we let average players look great.”
Another fan could be heard begging for St. John’s to go into a zone to stop these easy baskets with 6’7” and 6’8” Providence guards posting up their smaller St. John’s defenders.
Despite a number of Providence turnovers created by St. John’s in the last few minutes of the game and a stellar performance by Shamorie Ponds (29 points, 7 rebounds, 3 steals and only one turnover) the closest St. John’s came was seven points at the 48.5 second mark.
It was a little too late and Alpha Diallo of Providence sealed the victory by hitting four out of four free throws in the final 28 seconds of the game.
Confidence Building? It was not.
If one focus of the game was to strengthen the team’s confidence for the Big East tournament, this was not the game to do so.
Yes, Shamorie Ponds had a career game but the rest of the Red Storm shot 11 for 37 or 30 % from the field. The teams three point shooting (including Ponds) of 4 for 23 or 17% simply was not adequate. The free throw percentage 83% was acceptable but the usually accurate Marcus LoVett missed three free throws when the game was still within reach in the first half. Anyone can miss a dunk but the miss by Bashir Ahmed midway in the first half added to a deficit that the Johnnies could not overcome though valiantly trying to do so.
Do the Johnnies need to go back to the drawing board? Are teams learning how to defense LoVett and Ponds after playing against them?
Will the Johnnies somehow regain their confidence and be ready for the upcoming game against Georgetown?
What about a Zone Defense?
Fans were calling for it. Only Malik Ellison, at 6’6”, was anywhere near as tall as three of the Providence guards, 6’7” or better, who played major minutes. Providence was able to clear out the area under the basket, post up their taller guards and get easy looks for much of the game, particularly in the second half.
Will other teams attempt the strategy? If so, will a zone, even if only used on occasion create enough disruption to negate this strategy?
Where were the Red Storm Fans?
We fans were at the Garden but we were hardly heard. Yes, it is easier to cheer when your team is ahead but the team probably needs cheers more when they are behind.
Chants of “Let’s Go Friars” were as frequent as “Defense … defense” for the Johnnies and the Friar fans were more energized. They were loudest just after Mussini hit three free throws on Bullock’s third foul – when the Friars needed a lift.
Energy is very much a part of college basketball. Shamorie Ponds stated after the game against 12th ranked Butler on December 29th that it was the energy of the fans at Carnesecca Arena that generated the drive behind the Johnnies come from behind victory.
Fans need to be there for the team, whether playing well or struggling, from the opening tip until the last second has expired. The Johnnies are our team and we are the team’s fans. Full effort by team and fans will lead to greater success.
So it’s on to the Tournament
Teams play thirty games a year hoping for a reward of going to a tournament. In all likelihood the Big East Tournament is the tournament for St. John’s this year.
The team starts with playing a Georgetown team that has lost five straight including a loss to the Johnnies a week ago. Let’s bring energy to the team that feeds off our energy. A win in round one is a real possibility and, after that, it is a day at a time. Come out. Make some noise. Start to finish. Madison Square Garden is the Johnnies home court Let’s Go Johnnies!!!