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Takeaways: St. John’s competitive, but still on the losing side against Villanova

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The three-point shooting challenge is an issue, as is the front court

Wendell Cruz

Inside the St. John’s fan base there is gloom. But the Villanova fans, numerous in Madison Square Garden at the game, before the game expected a competitive contest.

Those Villanova fans also expressed support of St. John’s in their effort to “resurrect themselves.” “The Big East needs a strong St. John’s” another ‘Nova fan shared.

A third assessed Coach Mullin and his coaching staff as a “work in progress”.

First Half

Tariq Owens wins the tip-off
Wendell Cruz

Tariq Owens won the tip and the Johnnies isolated Justin Simon, who backed Villanova point guard, Jalen Brunson down. He did not shoot, instead feeding a cutting Bashir Ahmed, who laid in the first points of the game for a 2-0 Red Storm lead. (Though successful, the Johnnies never went to this set again).

The game started rather slowly for both teams. The score jockeyed back and forth, with some nice plays. Owens fed Ponds for a backdoor layup at 13:40 and a 10-6 St. John’s lead. At 7:53, with Bryan Trimble hit a 25 footer from the left wing and St. John’s moved back into the lead 20-17.

Little could Red Storm fans imagine that this would be the only three-pointer the team would connect on for the entire game.

St. John’s still led 20-18 at the 4:28 time out. However, the remainder of the half became the Donte DiVincenzo show, who scored 8 points as the half wound down, leading the Wildcats to a 34-27 lead.

There goes that Donte again
Wendell Cruz

Halftime Analysis

St. Johns had more field goals than Villanova 11 to 10 but only one was a three pointer. Villanova had six 3’s. Villanova also won the rebound battle 20 to 12. Villanova fans shared that they do not have one outstanding rebounder on the team so it is usually a team effort. St. John’s had four steals to two for Villanova and one more blocked shot.

Apart from the halftime statistics it was noted that both teams play an aggressive defense with ball handlers picked up only a few feet after crossing mid-court. Villanova, at times after a made basket, would set up a three-quarter length press. While it did slow the Johnnies down at times, it never resulted in a turnover.

Shamorie Ponds seemed to be on his game in the first half hitting mid-range jumpers after pulling up on his drives. He had ten points.

Kassoum Yakwe entered the game later in the first half and made his presence known quickly by taking a pass down low, head faking and then dunking the ball.

Kassoum Yakwe dunks
Wendell Cruz

Later in the half he repeated the play but was a fraction of a second late in getting off his shot for a thirty second violation.

St. John’s shot one for six on three point attempts in the first half. Ahmed and Marvin Clark seemed reluctant to take the shot from three-point distance.

Second Half

The second half began with St. John’s in a zone which immediately led to an Owens steal. The Johnnies advanced quickly and Ponds hit a jumper from the top of the key. The lead was down to five.

However, every time the Red Storm scored, the Wildcats were able to respond, often with a three to the Red Storm’s two pointer. At 16:39 after a Jalen Brunson jumper, Villanova led 43-33. Fans were concerned that Villanova was ready to pull away but the Red Storm would have none of that, particularly Ponds. At 14:42, a Ponds drive dropped the deficit to seven.

Shamorie Ponds on the go
Wendell Cruz

St. John’s was losing almost every statistical category, but steals (eight for St. John’s, two for Villanova) and turnovers (eight for St. John’s, 17 for Villanova) kept them in the game. Villanova fans expressed admiration, stating that this is a category the Wildcats usually come ahead in.

The lead continued to vacillate from a high of eleven and down to four, the last time being at 69-65 with 1:19 to go. A contested call against Ponds led to two Mikal Bridges free throws to increase the lead to six. The Johnnies continued to battle but, as expected from a number one team in the nation, the Wildcats made their free throws to seal a 78-71 victory.

Marvin Clark II frustrated after his fifth foul
Wendell Cruz

A faithful Villanova fan for many years summarized, “Ponds was really, really good and the St. John’s team competed - testing the number one team in the country throughout the game.” He seemed impressed.

But it was the sixth loss in Big East play for St. John’s.

Three Takeaways

Determined but need help: St. John’s, once again, played a hard and determined game. That assessment was universal amongst St. John’s’ fans. But when will the team find the way to win the close game against Big East competition? St. John’s has been competitive for at least three quarters of every game they have played. In three games, they were significant underdogs and yet pressed much higher ranked teams to the limit.

Five plus one: the starters and the coach
Wendell Cruz

The discussion about the possible impact of Marcus LoVett’s is over. The team is what it is and this evening it performed admirably. However, Shamorie Ponds will not score 37 points in every game.

Opposing teams, reviewing tape, will be structuring defenses to contain Ponds. One or two teammates have to step up and someone has to be able to make some three-point shots. Ahmed, Trimble, Owens and Clark have had games when they were effective shooters. Can they up their game?

Three Point Defense? Villanova shot 43.3% from long distance and 43.4% overall, virtually identical. DiVincenzo hit six out of nine three point attempts. The rest of the team went seven for twenty-one or thirty three percent.

Fans wondered: who is responsible for Donte DiVincenzo? Answer: the whole team.

DiVincenzo moved tirelessly without the ball. His teammates were adept at setting screens to free him as he moved. In addition, for much of the second half, the Johnnies were pressuring the Wildcats to try and force turnovers (which was effective for stretches). When the pressure was broken, backline defenders are at a disadvantage. Many of DiVincenzo’s threes came shortly after the Red Storm’s pressure was broken down.

DiVencenzo has had impactful games in the past against the Red Storm. The staff needs to come up with a plan to challenge him and other active prolific three-point shooters in future games.

Dante DiVincenzo drives against Justin Simon
Wendell Cruz

The problem: the entire Villanova team are capable shooters from three point land.

The Johnnies next game against Xavier has the Red Storm facing another 6’5, smooth shooting guard in J.P. Macura.

The Front Court: The Johnnies were out rebounded by Villanova 39 to 32 with a rallying Red Storm team closing the gap near the end of the game. Of these rebounds 11 for Villanova were offensive, while the Johnnies took down 10 offensive boards.

In addition, the Red Storm needs someone to play, at least on some offensive sets, in the low post. Tariq Owens seemed uncomfortable establishing space playing against Omari Spellman, (6’8”, 255 pounds) and Eric Paschall (6’7”, 250 pounds). Owens is taller at 6’11”, but weighs in at 205 pounds. Clark, at 6’7” and 230 pounds, is a little closer in size but Yakwe, who had a few moments using his quickness under the basket, is also light at 6’7” and 210 pounds.

Outlook for the Future

The St. John’s team plays hard. Villanova and St. Johns fans both agree.

The team has an emerging star in Shamorie Ponds. The squad has solid first-team players and maintained a lead over Villanova for much of the first half until the four minute mark. The Red Storm played the Wildcats even in the second half. There are good things to be said for the team’s prospects, even without looking to next season.

However, the team has obvious challenges and well-coached Big East teams are good at preparing for them.

The slumping players need a boost of confidence and to be injury-free. Players like Yakwe and Trimble have to continue to develop and make contributions. The next game at Xavier will be challenging and the hoped for goal at the end of the year should be an NIT invitation, but at 10-8 on the season, the Johnnies would need to have a .500 winning percentage to make that happen.

Is the team on the brink of moving forward on its challenges to support the brilliant play of Shamorie Ponds?

They seem to believe in themselves. Do we?