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Three takeaways: St. John’s defeat Loyola as defense leads the way

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Newcomers fill voids as Heron, Figueroa and Dixon excel. But is shooting a concern?

Wendell Cruz

Hype and hope were evident from the beginning of the Red Storm’s first game as chants of “defense… defense”, led by the student body, were heard on the Storm’s first defensive sequence of the game.

From beginning to end, the Red Storm played aggressively and earned more shots from the field than their opponent, comfortably earning a 76-55 win.

Before the game, long time season ticket holders had heard that the Greyhounds of Loyola were tall and had a game featuring attacking the basket. If so, one asked, “Why are we not starting our center?” to which the response was “because we are starting our best athletes.”

From the onset Loyola pressed on every possession. St. John’s had no difficulty breaking the press; and at 18:35 mark of the first half, L.J. Figueroa converted a fast break and was fouled. He hit the foul shot for an old fashioned three-point play, and was then followed by three-point jumpers from Mustapha Heron and Shamorie Ponds for a 9-0 St. John’s lead four minutes into the game.

Wendell Cruz

The Johnnies’ man-to-man defense was impressive from the outset. Loyola had no open shots for the first ten minutes of the game. However, the team’s aggressiveness also led to early foul trouble for both Sedee Keita and Justin Simon. Fans questioned the abundance of fouls being called on players aggressively filling passing lanes and diving for loose balls. It was the way the game was being called, and players on both teams had to make adjustments.

L.J. Figueroa stepped into passing lanes, making steals and, though not scoring many points after opening the game’s scoring, set up Heron in the corner for the Johnnie’s second basket and did the same for Marvin Clark at the 10 minute mark.

At the 11:35 timeout St. John’s led 15-6. Though outrebounded 8 to 5, the team’s shooting percentage was 46% compared to Loyola’s percentage of 14%.

At this time out one fan shared his first impression of Heron, he is a skilled athlete, performing at the high level fans were anticipating he would perform.

Fans also noted that, even though it was their first official game together, he and Shamorie Ponds played off of each other effectively. When Mikey Dixon replaced one or the other, the offensive chemistry continued. At the half Ponds had 16 points, Heron had 13 points and Dixon nine. Heron, Ponds and Dixon led the way scoring 38 of the team’s 48 points in the first half.

Chris Mullin instructs his team during a break
Wendell Cruz
Wendell Cruz

All three scored on three point jumpers as well as drives to the basket. By the end of the half St. John’s had seven assists to two for Loyola, and had forced 13 turnovers. However, as well as the team had played, leaving the court with a 48-23 lead, their eight turnovers left fans concerned.

Second Half

Enthusiasm for the team was abundant. The “Let’s Go Johnnies” cheer was heard, led by the Red Storm cheerleaders and the student section.

The Johnnies responded by scoring the first eight points of the half to extend their lead to 33 points, 56-23. Once again, good ball movement was the catalyst for the team’s success.

Justin Simon picked up his fourth foul and was removed. Loyola went on a short spurt over the next four minutes and Coach Mullin reinserted Simon at the 13 minute mark. At this moment in the game Simon’s stat line read four fouls and no points.

His reinsertion led to Simon asserting himself on offense beginning with a smooth jumper from the corner to extend the Johnnie’s lead to 60-32 at the thirteen minute mark.

Simon then stole the ball and laid it in. Soon after he inbounded the ball to Clark and cut towards the basket, receiving a nice pass from Clark. He was fouled and made the two foul shots. A minute later Simon stole the ball and drove the length of the court for a dunk.

On the next offensive possession Coach Mullin called the Johnnies to slow the offense down, which led to a Simon turnaround from the left block. In eight minutes he accounted for ten Red Storm points.

“Defense … defense” then erupted from the crowd and the fans were rewarded with a Loyola turnover. The Red Storm seemed to respond effectively to the enthusiasm of the crowd.

Shamorie Ponds seemed to drive at will for scores against a porous Loyola defense.

Andrew Kostecka led Loyola throughout the game and finished with 17 points and five rebounds. Nine of his points came on foul shots as he attacked the basket often and was adept at drawing fouls.

Three freshman, Dixon and Simon played the last several minutes of the game and, although Loyola began hitting some long range jumpers, the outcome of the game was never in doubt.

Shamorie Ponds drives against Loyola
Wendell Cruz

Three Takeaways

Newcomers play extensively and competently

Mustapha Heron, L.J. Figueroa and Mikey Dixon all played significant roles in the victory.

Heron demonstrated the ability to lead the way offensively when Ponds was on the bench and the two appeared to blend well together when both on the floor. Red Storm fans have much to look forward to as their chemistry together emerges.

One year ago it was Ponds and Marcus Lovett providing an offensive spark from the guard position. LoVett was an effective three-point shooter, particularly from the corners, and Heron provided the same spark last evening. LoVett also provided tough one-on-one defense, shutting down opponents, and fans saw the same in Heron last night. Heron provides an additional skill as an accomplished rebounder.

Figueroa played an all-around game, stepping into passing lanes for steals, rebounding and, on offense, hitting on drives to the basket and putting back missed shots.

Dixon, although challenged at times on the defensive end, was most capable breaking down the Loyola press, driving to the basket and shooting from the outside.

Dixon (l) & Figueroa
Wendell Cruz

A fourth newcomer, Sedee Keita, found himself in foul trouble almost immediately and only played ten minutes. The referees called a tight game. In the future, Keita must be aware and make defensive adjustments to avoid foul trouble, which limited his availability. When playing, he showed the ability to be a presence under the basket on defense. Unlike the exhibition against Maryville, Keita did not get into the flow of the game last evening.

The three freshmen, Josh Roberts, Greg Williams Jr. and Marcellus Earlington, all got playing time with Williams substituted in and out of the game in both halves.

Roberts took down two rebounds and Williams provided defensive pressure while in the game. Greg Williams also scored his first points as a Johnnie in the first half on a breakaway layup.

Greg Williams drives
Wendell Cruz

Defense wins games

Despite the 48-23 halftime score, it was the defense that excelled. The defense held Loyola to 25 percent shooting. The Greyhounds had thirteen turnovers in the half, many of them leading to St. John’s fast break points.

A defensive concern for the Red Storm was the abundance of fouls, particularly by Sedee Keita who picked up two fouls in less than a minute of play.

The Red Storm provided Loyola with double bonus foul shots in both halves, had one player foul out (Keita) and had Simon playing with four fouls much of the second half. The game was being called tightly and Red Storm defenders need to make in game adjustments to avoid foul trouble.

Due to the team’s depth this year, losing one player to foul trouble per game should not create a vacuum of talent as it has done in past years. There was ample talent on the roster to step in for Keita as he struggled with foul trouble against Loyola.

Offense filled with athletes but can they hit the outside shot reliably?

In the first half the Red Storm hit 56% of their field goal attempts and 46% of their threes. These are excellent statistics.

This performance was assisted by the Greyhounds pressing the Red Storm on almost every inbounds pass in the first half. The Red Storm had little trouble breaking the pressure down by passing over the Greyhound pressuring defenders. This led to an abundance of open looks driving to the basket or from three-point range.

The Red Storm were also able to turn over many of the Greyhounds 13 turnovers into easy baskets.

Wendell Cruz

In the second half the Greyhounds decided to drop the full court pressure and the Johnnies field goal and shooting percentage dropped, despite Simon’s heroics in the middle of the second half.

There appears to be a need to continue to work on offensive sets when an opponent’s defense is in place. While the Red Storm continued to move the ball briskly, the end result often was to find a Johnnie who had a moment to take his man one on one.

The three point percentage in the second half also dropped precipitously, and, although several Johnnies hit threes in the game, fans continued to wonder which Johnnies would emerge to reliably hit these shots.

One fan recalled the Villanova national championship team from the past year. Almost every Villanova player was deemed a reliable shooter from long distance.

For the game the Johnnies had 13 assists on 29 made baskets — a slight drop off from the 17 assists on 30 field goals in the Maryville game.

Conclusion

As the band played “New York, New York”, St. John’s fans left Carnesecca Arena with smiles on their faces.

Wendell Cruz

There was an enthusiasm in the stands throughout the game. In particular there appeared to be a chemistry emerging between the returning players and the newcomers and it was evident from the onset of the game.

The Greyhounds were billed as a good rebounding team and had three 6’8” players. The Johnnies held their own on the boards.

One significant defensive statistic is that, due to forcing 24 turnovers coupled with tight defense, the number of shot attempts by Loyola was 44 as compared with the Johnnies 65 attempts. Loyola, billed as an attacking team with good rebounding, only had seven offensive rebounds; for comparison the Red Storm had nine.

After the Maryville exhibition, there was concern about giving the opponents too many open three-point looks. The Greyhounds did not make a three-point basket until midway in the second half and ended with three out of twelve attempts for the game.

This performance of the Johnnies was impressive.

Can the defensive pressure, without fouling, be maintained as the skill level of opponents rises? If so, Red Storm fans have much to look forward to and hope continues to be seen for 2018-19.