For athletes there are moments which are memorable. Some are the ones a player anguishes over, like a missed shot that would have won a game.
Then there are the victories. Some, even when not pretty, are special to be remembered forever. So it will be for Red Storm players who observed a two-game tournament filled with drama and a lot of fight.
It was not pretty, and at the end of the year, it is only an early-season tournament. But credit need be given to all competitors of the Legends Classic at the Barclay Center.
When the Johnnies walked off the court victorious after a stunning overtime victory over the Virginia Commonwealth Rams, a VCU fan accepted congratulations for his team’s performance. He replied, “we are satisfied. No one thought we could compete with Temple or St. John’s in this tournament.”
The Rams certainly did compete, as did the Cal Golden Bears.
A look back on the two days in Brooklyn that sent blood pressures rising and showed some promise, and some problems, for the Red Storm.
Game One: St. John’s versus California
The Legend’s Classic began with student fans in the stands displaying signs with the inscription “Mustapha for President,” cheering Heron’s every basket in the victory over the California Golden Bears. But even though Heron played well, scoring 13 points and taking down four rebounds, the crunch time belonged to Shamorie Ponds.
The Golden Bears were 14-point underdogs in the game, but it was clear from the beginning that they did not see themselves as underdogs.
The Golden Bears jumped out to a six point lead early on hot shooting from guards Darius McNeill and Paris Austin and, midpoint through the first half, led 22-16.
At the 9:25 mark, Mikey Dixon started the first half comeback, driving the length of the court and connecting on a pretty over the shoulder layup which a taller Golden Bear defender was unable to contest.
Shamorie Ponds then scored 14 points and St. John’s, led by Ponds, went on a 16-3 run. At the half the Red Storm led 38-31. It was noteworthy that the Golden Bears, though taller than the Red Storm, had no put back baskets in the first half against the Red Storm’s guard-heavy lineups. But that was soon to change.
Golden Bears’ first half strategy of deferring to the jump shooting guards was replaced by a strategy of feeding their forwards, particularly Justice Sueing, who was relentless attacking the rim. But it was Sueing’s three from the corner at the 17:27 mark that suddenly brought California within one point of the lead 40-39.
Shamorie Ponds then stepped forward on two consecutive plays, not as a scorer, but as a passer. On both plays Ponds drove to the basket and, as Golden Bear defenders collapsed to contain his drive, he deftly passed to an open Marvin Clark, who hit both threes and the lead was back to seven. The second of the two assists was a pretty behind the back pass.
California fought back, and took a lead, earning as much as a seven-point lead after a Sueing layup.
As he did at the end of the first half, so Ponds led the way at the end of the second half. When he was not scoring on drives to the basket or taking turnaround jumpers, he was dishing off to teammates. L.J. Figueroa was having a relatively quiet night but responded when the Johnnies needed him most, hitting a three off a Ponds feed at the 7:55 mark, cutting the Golden Bears lead to three.
In one remarkable sequence Ponds stole the ball and drove the length of the court. He found an open Bryan Trimble not once but, after an offensive rebound, twice for an open three. Unfortunately, Trimble was unable to convert, but Justin Simon crashed the boards and grabbed a rebound amidst three Golden Bear defenders, putting it back in for a 69-68 Red Storm lead.
From then on, it was Ponds versus a determined-to-the-end California team.
The Red Storm came away with an 82-79 win, having assisted on 15 of their made 29 shots.
Game 2: St. John’s versus VCU
While the victory over California was dramatic and hard fought, the championship game against VCU was memorable — and even tougher.
The Johnnies were off to a good start after a jumper by L.J. Figueroa at 17:44; the Red Storm led 6-3. The Rams tied the score on a three pointer by Malik Crowfield at the 16:09 mark and the teams exchanged the lead for the remainder of the half. Crowfield again hit a three at the end of the half and the Rams led 36-31.
The vaunted Ram full court pressure was effective. VCU only forced six St. John’s turnovers while committing fourteen themselves, but St. John’s struggled to find offensive rhythm from outside the arc. The field goal percentage for both teams was close: 35% for St. John’s and 38% for VCU.
The difference maker for VCU was the three point shooting. Ram shooters, including Isaac Vann, hit 7 out of 17 a rate of 41% to the Red Storm’s 18% on 2 of 11 shooting.
The end of the second half and overtime was filled with drama. Figueroa hit a three-pointer 20 seconds into the half reducing the Rams lead to 36-34. However, two successive VCU jumpers extended the lead to seven at 41-34 at the 18:09 mark of the half.
The VCU press seemed to be wearing down Red Storm players and tentativeness was setting in at times. Although the press did not cause a multitude of turnovers, St. John’s was often beginning their offense in the Rams backcourt with 20 or less seconds to shoot.
With 16 minutes to play, VCU scorer Marcus Evans scored for the first time, was fouled and hit the foul shot for a 47-39 lead. Evans’ teammates were attacking the offensive boards, putting back misses and the Red Storm seemed in jeopardy of letting the game get away from them.
On the defensive end VCU dropped into a zone defense.
The game began to turn on two aggressive moves by Justin Simon, the first assisted by Clark and the second after a perfect alley-oop pass from Figueroa. At the 15:10 mark the lead was reduced to three, 47-44.
Ponds and later Mikey Dixon began penetrating the Rams’ zone on driving layups and at 13:14 the lead was down to 50-48. Over the next five minutes, five different Johnnies scored reducing the lead to one at 62-61. Each team converted three three-pointers.
VCU went back to a man-to-man defense.
The Johnnies took the lead for the first time in the half after a Mustapha Heron steal and feed to Ponds for a layup with seven minutes to play.
The lead went back and forth with Isaac Vann (30 points) of VCU and Shamorie Ponds leading the way for their respective teams. Ponds hit a layup with 25 seconds left to put the Johnnies up by one. Marcus Evans of VCU ran the clock down and attacked the Johnnies’ basket with under ten seconds to play. He was fouled by Ponds but only made one of two shots, tying the score.
St. Johns had five seconds left and called time out.
Coach Mullin then called for a play using Ponds as a decoy and sending Figueroa down the left side of the court. A perfect pass from Simon had Figueroa twenty feet from the basket with five seconds to attack. Figueroa deferred to a streaking Clark, who was following him down the court, passing to him for an open three pointer from just right of the top of the key. He missed, and the game went to overtime.
During the break between periods, a play by play announcer for VCU could be heard commenting about how devastating a loss by the Rams would be after they had been leading most of the game.
VCU jumped out in front on a three by Evans 10 seconds in. The Rams maintained the lead until a Ponds layup tied the game with two minutes to play. A tip-in by Figueroa and a made foul shot at 1:25 gave the Red Storm its first lead in the overtime session, 81-80.
A free throw shooting contest then emerged as VCU hit six out of six attempts and Ponds hit four out of four, leaving VCU ahead by one with 10 seconds to play.
This time, the Red Storm put their faith in Ponds, who drove the full court, dodging VCU defenders, and sank a floater from the left side with four seconds to play bringing the Red Storm a championship.
Grit on defense
Yes, the Johnnies gave up 13 threes in the VCU game (on 34 attempts). Mann was on fire most of the game, and Jenkins hit four often tough attempts.
With the game on the line in the last 10 minutes of play, VCU made only one three-pointer — 10 seconds after winning the jump ball at the beginning of overtime.
There was a determination on the faces of Red Storm defenders, particularly in those last ten minutes. When getting back on defense and stopping the initial Ram transition attack would cause VCU to reset its offense, which was much less effective than their early offense.
Getting back on defense consistently is a priority.
For VCU, 55% of their field goal attempts were from three point range, several from thirty or more feet. The Johnnies defense took away easier attempts to score.
Lastly, the Red Storm had 14 steals to five for the Rams and without the use of full court pressure, which the Rams employed for most of the game.
Dixon steadily contributing
In the VCU game, Mikey Dixon scored 10 points in 22 minutes of play. He shot 4/4 on field goal attempts and 2/2 from three. Only Shamorie Ponds scored more points per minute in the game.
In the California game he had a similar line, scoring seven points in 18 minutes, hitting all but one of his field goal attempts. On defense, he showed solid lateral quickness and an intensity in the man to man.
He had no turnovers in 32 minutes of play in the combined games.
L.J. Figueroa has been getting deserved attention as a contributing newcomer. Dixon deserves the same.
Shamorie Ponds’ game is expanding
Talking about Ponds may seem redundant, but in these two games he was special. At the end of the California game, fans expressed an observation that his performance the game was perhaps his best overall in his career.
In the two game tournament Ponds, even with his aggressive style of play, committed just one turnover in 79 minutes. Given the pressing nature of the VCU team (and some of the difficult spots Ponds dribbled himself into), this low turnover rate was the most impressive aspect of his game. He had seven assists and eight steals in the two games to go with his 22/40 field goal shooting.
As awards were being handed out at the end of the game, fans started chanting “MVP … MVP” as Ponds was called forward. It was well deserved accolade for his performance in a most memorable game.
The schedule lightens in the upcoming month and the Red Storm need to develop their freshmen Josh Roberts, Marcellus Earlington and Greg Williams Jr., from whom they will need to get contributions from this year. The freshmen need experience and a sense that they have a role to play during the season, especially on nights where foul trouble starts to restrict the options on the floor.
As Marvin Clark walked off the court, holding the trophy for winning high over his head, the PA system played Queen’s “We Are the Champions.”
After he left the song changed to Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” and, as fans exited the Barclay Center, many were singing along. “Start spreading the news, I’m leaving today, I want to be a part of it, New York… New York.”
The Johnnies are the only undefeated basketball team in town. And with some work, the development of inside players, and continued improvement in ball movement and team cohesion, bigger and better days could be ahead.