A longtime fan entered Carnesecca Arena on Tuesday night about ten minutes before the game began and asked, “how does Ponds look?”
The answer, about St. John’s star guard Shamorie Ponds, was “he is hitting his jumper tonight”. It soon became evident that the extra work put in would indeed pay dividends.
The game between St. John’s and Xavier (which ended as a 73-68 loss) opened with Justin Simon on Trevon Bluiett of Xavier and Bashir Ahmed guarding fellow senior J.P. Macura.
The battle between Ahmed and Macura was, at times, fierce. Both players accumulated fouls as the game progressed. Ahmed picked up his second foul at the 13:00 mark with St. John’s in the lead 17-11.
He remained out for much of the first half.
Both Clark and Ponds were hot early, hitting threes and being successful on aggressive drives to the basket. Ponds hit a three at 13:00 to give the Johnnies their largest lead of the game, 17-11.
At the 9:30 mark of the half, Tariq Owens picked up his second foul and he was taken out.
With Kassoum Yakwe on the bench for the game, the Johnnies played much of the first half with the only remaining dressed scholarship players — a squad of Ponds, Clark, Simon, freshman Bryan Trimble Jr. and senior Amar Alibegovic (3 points).
It took less than two minutes for Xavier to take the lead with Owens on the sideline, however, as 6’10” Sean O’Mara backed down Alibegovic and hit a turnaround jumper for a 19-17 Xavier lead.
This was the middle of a 15-3 Xavier run, which gave them a 26-20 lead. Fans noted that the Red Storm had the “worst three point defense in the nation” but it should be noted that several of the Musketeer three-point goals came on fast break opportunities.
When the Red Storm were able to drop back on defense their three point defense was more effective — but all points count.
St. John’s went into a passive 3⁄4 court zone press after made buckets, which took time off the 30-second clock. The Johnnies would then drop into a man to man after the Musketeers crossed midcourt. It was successful; Xavier started their offensive sets with between 18 and 22 seconds on the clock. They did not attack the press aggressively.
The home side began to crawl back into the game.
Marvin Clark hit a three and Ponds driving the left side hitting a layup and making a foul shot. The score was 30-28 and the student section began calling out “defense … defense.” The half wound down with Simon intercepting a Xavier pass under the basket. Xavier had balanced scoring for the first half and led by five, 37-32.
Shamorie Ponds had 16 points, and one fan gushed, “Ponds is being Ponds tonight.” Clark looked possessed with determination — not only was he hitting threes but he was also taking the ball hard to the hoop, both along the baseline or into the low key, hitting layups and drawing fouls.
The only other points scored by a Johnnie were scored by Ahmed, who, in his limited playing time, scored four points.
For the first half Xavier was hitting a higher percentage of shots than the Red Storm but, as has been the case for Johnnies’ opponents, they had seven turnovers to the Red Storm’s four.
Xavier hit six of fifteen three pointers (40%) while St. John’s hit five out of fifteen (33%).
After a Macura drive at the beginning of the second half raised the deficit to seven the Johnnies began their comeback. Ponds drove the middle, and his layup cut the deficit to 39-34. Then he drove from the left for a layup and the score was 39-36. “defense … defense” erupted from the stands, not just the student section.
The crowd was alive.
With 16:30 to play, Simon drove towards the low key and kicked out to Ahmed for a three and the Xavier lead was 43-41.
Thirty seconds later, Ponds fed a driving Simon for a layup tying the score.
At 15:38 Clark led a fast break after a Johnnies steal and hit Ponds for another layup and the Red Storm took a 45-43 lead.
After a Clark three at 13:53, St. John’s led 51-47 over the number six team in the nation.
There was more energy in the stands than Johnnie fans and team had felt all year.
Bashir Ahmed took a three from the right corner and, instead of following the shot, began back pedaling for defense. The shot hit the rim and bounced back toward where he had taken the shot.
An opportunity to rebound his own shot was missed and a fan was heard yelling out, “Ahmed! follow your shot.” This has been a concern of fans all year — that the Johnnies were back pedaling after jump shots (which miss more often than they fall) were taken, taking themselves out of offensive rebounding position.
At the 11:15 mark, Ponds drove right and hit a layup for a 53-50 St. John’s lead. As play continued an announcement was heard that this was the 1,000 point of his career.
St. John’s held the lead for seven minutes, until 6:42 was left in the game when Xavier moved ahead 56-55. Then Alibegovic dove for a loose ball and was fouled. He made one of two foul shots to tie the score.
Two old nemeses emerged — the open three, and late game execution.
The Red Storm had been successfully challenging Xavier’s three point shooting in the second half. However, at the 6:00 mark, Blueitt drove to the rim and then kicked the ball out to Quentin Goodin in the left corner for a wide open three. The Musketeers were up 59-56.
Baskets were traded and the Johnnies kept the game close. Fans rose from their seats and a fan commented, “it’s getting loud in here.”
The Johnnies were down by two when Simon was fouled with over two minutes remaining... but he missed both free throws. The Johnnies fought on.
With two minutes to play Clark hit a three from the corner and the game was tied.
At 1:50 Owens deflected a Xavier pass and Clark stole the ball. The Johnnies called time out.
The inbounds pass came to Ponds who dribbled outside the top of the key waiting, it appeared for a teammate to set a screen.
This took about ten seconds.
The Musketeers thwarted his drive and the ball passed through several Johnnies’ hands on the perimeter as the thirty second clock ran out.
Was it excellent defense by the Musketeers or poor planning by the Johnnies?
The Johnnies played tough defense and Xavier missed its next shot. In going for the rebound Ahmed was called for pushing Blueitt who calmly made both free throws. Blueitt returned the favor by fouling Ahmed at the forty second mark but he made only one of two free throws. The Musketeers led by one.
The Johnnies played tough defense and Kerem Kanter, with time running out, drove to the basket. His shot was blocked by Owens but, in what may have been the defining moment of the game, the officials ruled it to be goaltending.
The Johnnies needed a three-pointer, but Xavier double teamed Owens when he received a pass on the right wing about 15 feet from the basket. He tried to dribble out of the double team, but lost the ball. Trevon Blueitt hit two free throws for a five point lead and Clark missed a deep three pointer.
After shaking the Musketeers hands the Johnnies held a brief team meeting at midcourt, where teammates seemed fired up and not deflated by the game’s outcome.
They left the court to a standing ovation from an appreciative crowd.
Ponds, Ahmed and Clark
Shamorie Ponds was back to “being Ponds” while scoring 31 points — including 3 of 7 from three-point land. He hit 60% of his shots and played all 40 minutes of the game. Ponds added five rebounds, six steals and five assists in an effort on both ends of the court for the Red Storm.
Bashir Ahmed sat out much of the first half after getting into early foul trouble battling with his defensive assignments, Xavier seniors Trevon Blueitt and J. P. Macura. He had ten rebounds (three offensive) while playing just 28 minutes of the game. Although missing several layups Ahmed scored 12 points, hitting 5 from 11 from the field. Unfortunately, Ahmed missed a critical free throw at the 40 second mark that would have tied the game.
Marvin Clark played all but a few seconds of the game. He scored 19 points, hitting four out of nine three point attempts. Clark took down seven rebounds and made three steals. He appeared to be a leader in the huddle after the game, bringing the team together after a frustrating loss.
These three scored 62 of the team’s 68 points.
Three-point Shooting Defense
Xavier hit 8/26 for the game (31%). while St John’s shot slightly better at 8/25 (32%).
Xavier got back into the game in latter part of the second half by forgoing the three and feeding 6’10” senior Kareem Kanter under the rim or by their guards taking the ball to the rim, drawing fouls or dishing outside to open three point shooters.
Yearly stats for Xavier: 37.5% made as a team. Against St. John’s tonight, 30.8%
Trevon Bluett hits threes at 41.3%. Against St. John’s tonight he was 1/9.
J. P. Macura hits threes at 36.1%. Against St. John’s tonight, 1/6
On January 30, 2018 the three point defense was fine with a Johnnies’ hand in the face of most three-point shooters. Give Bashir Ahmed some credit as his assignment was usually Blueitt or Macura when in the game.
Free Throws in the clutch
Late game free throw shooting that doomed the Johnnies once again. At the 15:35 mark of the second half the Johnnies led 45 to 43. They had hit 100% of their free throw attempts while Xavier was converting at 78%. However, by the end of the game Xavier was at 77% while the Johnnies had dropped to 63%.
In the last 3:20 of the game the Red Storm went 2/6 from the line with Simon, Clark and Ahmed all contributing misses. Ahmed’s miss at the 40 second mark was critical as it would have tied the game.
During the same period, tight defense by the Johnnies led to only a layup by Kanter, a disputed goaltending call which resulted in a second layup by Kanter and Blueitt twice going to the line. Blueitt hit all four of his free throws to ice the game for the Musketeers.
For the game Xavier hit 17/22 (77%), while St John’s hit 10/16 (62%).
Could fatigue be a part of the poor late game foul shooting? Is it pressure felt by players with all attention on them as they try to break this losing streak?
After Duke on Saturday (a trap game for a Duke team dominated by freshmen) and Villanova, there are three winnable games (Marquette twice and DePaul).
The goal should be to overcome DePaul or Georgetown to hopefully get a better first round game in the Big East tournament.
One game at a time.
Kassoum Yakwe could have made a difference tonight with Owens and Ahmed saddled with early foul trouble. Let’s hope a four day rest and rehab will bring him back to the lineup.
The crowd at Carnessecca gave the team a standing ovation when they left the court last night. We do the same.