As Mustapha Heron stepped to the line with :01 left to play to ice the game for St. John’s, a nine year old fan, confusing the college game with a pro game, asked “Is this the end of the third quarter?”
Of course it was not, but the young man may have had a point; last night’s close, nerve-wracking 84-80 win over Bowling Green certainly had three segments.
Segment One: In the first five minutes, St. John’s jumped out to a 16-7 lead. Bowling Green turnovers, good ball movement, and Marvin Clark’s three point shooting triggered the early offensive explosion. St. John’s, at this point, had six assists to Bowling Green’s one.
At the 14:38 mark, Shamorie Ponds drove towards the basket, dished off to Mustapha Heron, who attacked the basket. Bowling Green defenders collapsed to stop Heron who niftily passed to Justin Simon for a soft eight-foot jumper. It was an impressive ball movement sequence and the Red Storm were off to a good start.
Segment Two: The game was soon to change.
The Falcons guards, particularly Dylan Frye, began finding open looks, particularly after teammates’ drives into the paint. As Red Storm defenders collapsed to assist, the Falcon driver passed to his teammate, deserted by the St. Johns defender. By the 11:51 time out, three open Falcon jumpers (two from three point range) had reduced the Johnnies lead to 20-15.
Two layups by Heron increased the lead back to nine at the 9:14 mark, but fans were expressing frustration. “There are no screens being set, no movement,” one said. From another fan, “there is no one playing under the basket to go for a rebound.”
At 3:52 Frye made his third three pointer of the half to give Bowling Green the lead. A season ticket holder exclaimed in frustration, “they still cannot cover the corner three, just like the last two years”.
The half wound down with Bowling Green holding a two point lead at the half, 39-37. Heron and Clark led the way with 13 points each while Ponds was held to five.
If someone had just arrived at halftime and looked at the statistics on the scoreboard he or she would have concluded Bowling Green would be up by more. The Falcons’ field goal percentage was 52% to 42% for the Red Storm. They were connecting on 54% of their three point attempts and had 20 rebounds. In comparison the three point percentage for the Red Storm was 35% and the Johnnies had 15 rebounds.
The equalizing factor was the turnovers in the half. The Falcons had ten to the Johnnies five.
Three pointers continued to fall for the Falcons to start the second half. Falcon guard Justin Turner joined Frye as a Falcon sharpshooter. At the 16:24 mark Bowling Green’s lead expanded to eleven, 51-40.
Coach Mullin then called on Brian Trimble to sub for Heron. Trimble did not score any points in the game but his insertion into the game was the turning point for the Red Storm.
It became immediately clear that Trimble came into the game with instructions to pressure Dylan Frye. It worked; Frye did not score over the last fifteen minutes of the game.
As the defense tightened, the comeback began with Simon driving into the lane and converting a short jumper. Twenty seconds later, Clark assisted Simon as he drove for a layup and, after a Simon steal and a pass to L.J. Figueroa, Figueroa hit a three from the left wing and the Johnnies were down by four. Carnesecca Arena erupted, everyone on their feet.
Keeping the fans excited: at the 15:23 timeout, a St. John’s student was given the opportunity to hit a free throw, a three pointer, and a half-court shot for a cash prize. As the Red Storm huddled with Coach Mullin, the student hit the first two, then went to mid court and took a shot that went into the basket, spun around a complete circle... and fell out. The now spirited crowd groaned then cheered the student’s effort. Electricity was in the air and everyone had a sense that the Johnnies were ready to finish the comeback.
But then, Antwon Lilliard made a three for Bowling Green at the 14:08 mark extending the Falcons lead to 54 to 49.
The Red Storm responded. It would be the last three of the game for Bowling Green as Red Storm defenders, mimicking Trimble’s defensive intensity, shut down the Falcon guards with pressure. No longer were they collapsing to double team or dropping into passing lanes to hopefully create a turnover. It became “in your face” defensive pressure, and it worked.
On offense, the Red Storm began working off of Marvin Clark, who was setting up at the top of the foul line. At 12:33 Mikey Dixon fed Clark, cut by him for a handoff as Clark screened the Falcon defender. It was an old fashioned play, freeing Dixon for a layup which cut the lead to 56-51.
Ponds returned at the 10:30 mark and shortly afterwards stole the ball. A minute later he began what one fan described as the “Shamorie Ponds thing”.
Ponds scored fifteen points in seven minutes as the Red Storm built up a nine point lead with 57 seconds to go.
The game seemed secure but the Falcons were not giving in.
Four missed free throws by the Johnnies, coupled with Turner scoring twice and Lilliard hitting four free throws had the Falcons with the ball and down by just two with six seconds to play.
Heron, who missed three of those free throws, made amends with a steal and hit two free throws to seal the 84-80 win.
The stars comes through as part of the team effort
It is hard to pick which of the Red Storm was the most valuable player in the game.
One could argue it was Marvin Clark II who scored 15, had five rebounds and, after Seede Keita left the game with an injury in the first half, had to shoulder the load of defending Bowling Green players who were decidedly taller.
One could argue it was Brian Trimble Jr., whose defensive pressure on Dylan Frye seemed to stimulate an intensity in the entire team’s defensive effort. The Falcons scored 51 points in the first 24 minutes of the game but only 29 in the last 16 minutes.
However, this night the two stars Shamorie Ponds and Mustapha Heron came through when most needed. Heron scored 26 points, had six rebounds and made the steal with seconds remaining which sealed the game. Ponds, after a slow start and struggling with a knee injury the beginning of the second half, came in with ten minutes to play, taking over the game and leading the team as it recaptured the lead.
What defense works?
The Johnnies pressure created twenty Bowling Green turnovers to eight of their own. The turnovers came consistently throughout the game.
What did change was the ability of Bowling Green to convert three point shots before and after the Johnnies tightened their man to man coverage in the middle of the second half. Not only did the Falcons percentage go down, their ability to even get off a three point shot disappeared.
The Falcons had to change their strategy to feeding their front line which did not have prolific scorers as their backcourt did. The Falcon front line shot a combined two for six during the game, though they did hit eleven free throws. This defensive pressure was accomplished without the services of Sedee Keita, out for most of the game and during the entire second half.
On two occasions the Johnnies briefly dropped into what appeared to be a 2-1-2 zone. It was disruptive at first in the first half as Bowling Green was not expecting it. In the second half the Falcons had no problem penetrating and scoring.
In conclusion, the team, at this stage of the season, appears to perform best when the defense is a simple man to man. It was effective in the Loyola game and in the second half today.
A win is a win
The game looked like a runaway in segment one, the first five minutes. In segment two, the Johnnies did not perform consistently. There was some ball movement but it often resulted in a Johnnie having to go one on one or, in one sequence, L. J. Figueroa had to go one on four as the thirty second shot clock was expiring.
The bottom line is simple: when the team had to perform on defense, it tightened up and was successful. When offensive production was needed in the second half, Ponds and Heron stepped up.
The game was not pretty but it was a win against a team with backcourt that could certainly shoot and a team with size that could rebound. The game has takeaways for the team — in terms of execution, intensity and trusting the ball movement.
There was energy at Carnesecca Arena. There was a higher percentage of students at the game last night then in past years. It suggests an excitement on campus for the team.
The energy in the building, when the team was coming from behind in the second half, was reminiscent of the energy during the upset of Duke at Madison Square Garden last February. When Carnesecca Arena is rocking, it cannot help but energize the team and, as they came back last night, the energy increased as did the team’s performance, particularly on defense.
There is potential for something special this season and the team’s rebound from a struggle of a mid-game performance is most encouraging. But the lull itself, and letting Bowling Green dominate for the second segment, is worrying.