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Three takeaways: are slumps over? defensive spurts, rotation

Why great defense “in spurts” and who is in the rotation are questions to be answered

Wendell Cruz

It appeared to be a sell out or, at least, 99% of a sellout on Saturday evening when the St. John’s Red Storm took the court against the Sacred Heart Pioneers of Fairfield, Connecticut. — a game that ended up a 104-82 win (Ed. note: the most points the team has given up in regulation this season).

Quite a few fans shared that this was the first Red Storm game they had seen in person this season. They saw the team on television, and they had read about it, so they felt it was time to come to Carnesecca Arena.

One first-timer said that he heard Marvin Clark II isn’t a good shooter, to which another responded that Clark had been connecting better better recently.

Clark would answer the question about his shooting ability by halftime.

A season ticket holder of many years commented that the team needed to get Mustapha Heron “going” just like the team had to get Clark going a few games ago. Heron certainly got going, in this game at least.

As the game began 6’7” Clark went to jump center against 6’10” Jare’l Spellman of Sacred Heart, winning the tip. LJ Figueroa made a nice pass to Justin Simon for a driving layup just eleven seconds into the game.

It was the beginning of an impressive opening sequence of timely defensive stops and fast breaks. At 18:02 Simon blocked a Pioneer shot, and passed to Shamorie Ponds. Ponds passed up court to Heron who missed the shot. With Ponds crashing the boards and grabbing the rebound, Heron set up in the left corner. A perfect pass from Ponds to Heron and a three from the corner suggested it would truly be Heron’s day. The Johnnies led 8-0.

After Heron, there was Clark. At 16:30 Clark hit a three from deep in the left corner. Then forty seconds later he hit a second three from the left wing. At 15:25 there was a three from the top of the key and lastly, at 12:57, a three from well over 20 feet out, also at the top of the key. The Johnnies led 29 to 10.

Wendell Cruz

The Pioneers began hitting and three St. John’s turnovers found the lead cut in half 33 to 24 at the ten minute mark.

During this span a Figueroa drive and dish to Williams — making a case to be in the regular rotation — was converted at 10:44.

At 8:16 a successful alley-oop pass from Ponds led to Figueroa’s first score of the game.

For short periods in the game the Johnnies would institute a three quarters court press. It has been used in past games, not so much to steal the ball, but to make opponents work to get into their offense and thereby have less time to run a play.

Unlike previous games, against Sacred Heart the press also led to several steals in the backcourt, which easily turned around into fast break baskets. It is difficult to say whether the steals were due to a refinement of the press or simply due to an unprepared Sacred Heart team.

Ponds was not looking to attack the basket until, with 30 seconds in the half, he quickly dribbled into the paint and was fouled, hitting two free throws for his first points of the game.

St. John’s led by 14 at the half with Clark’s 23 points and Heron’s 10 points leading the way.

Wendell Cruz
Chris Mullin with Tim Hardaway, who has astonished face
Wendell Cruz

Second Half

The Pioneers came out determined and scored the opening seven points of the half, attacking the Johnnies basket more aggressively. The Red Storm and the Pioneers each had 17 rebounds in the first half, but that was to change. 6’8” forward E. J. Anosike began crashing the boards and the Johnnies lead dwindled.

At 18:16 a three by Koreem Ozier, who was beginning to heat up, cut the Johnnies lead again to eight at 53-45, as close as the Pioneers would get.

Shamorie Ponds took over the game hitting two consecutive threes. Then, at 10:45, he attacked the basket, slowed and made a behind the back to Figueroa for a driving layup.

Figueroa layup over Sean Hoehn
St. John’s Red Storm, Sacred Heart, LJ Figueroa

Figueroa, who had been content to rebound and play defense, suddenly became alive and scored seven consecutive points in the middle of the second half.

At the 10:34 timeout St. John’s honored Paul Lee, injured in Afghanistan, thanking him for his service. The entire stadium rose to their feet and, after a brief recognition ceremony, many fans stated chanting “USA… USA”. It was the first chanting of the night as, though fans cheered individual plays, chants as “let’s Go Johnnies” and “Defense … defense”, so common in past games, were not heard in a game that felt out of reach from a few minutes in to the action.

At a subsequent time out, Billy Mitaritonna was re-introduced to the crowd. Mitaritonna played on the last St. John’s team officially known as the Redmen in the 1993-94 season. As a walk-on he scored just one point during his career, yet his time as a Johnnie was memorable enough to publish his book, “Last of the Redmen” which was available for sale at the game.

By 3:56, all starters were out for the rest of the game. As the game went on, fans sensed that the Johnnies would reach triple figures and they did so when Bryan Trimble Jr. hit a long three at 1:50 to go for a 102-78 lead.

The reserves played credibly, holding their own, as they scored seven points to Sacred Heart’s seven, highlighted by a perfect alley–oop pass from Williams to Josh Roberts at the 1:28 mark for the 104th point of the game.

Josh Roberts dunks
Wendell Cruz
Bench cheers
Wendell Cruz

It brought the fans to their feet as well as the St. John’s bench jumping and cheering.

Recognizing the value of the walk-ons, who provide valuable competition for the starters during practice, the crowd called for Coach Mullin to insert Justin Cole, Branden Lawrence and Jay Camus at the end of the game. With 30 seconds to go a timeout was called and, to the crowd’s applause, the trio entered the game.

Three Takeaways

Clark and Heron, out of their slumps?

It was a short time ago that St. John’s fans were concerned about the shooting skills of Marvin Clark and Mustapha Heron.

Clark, the lone senior on the team, was in a slump which he began to come out of in the Mount St. Mary’s game. His first half in the Sacred Heart game was memorable… 23 points on 7/9 shooting, including six of eight from three point land. As a forward, hitting from deep, Clark forces opponents to defend away from the basket and opens up the middle for the attacking guards and wings; all of the starters plus reserve Mikey Dixon excel at attacking the basket.

Despite his and the team’s outstanding play, Clark was clear after the game stating, “we haven’t done anything yet in our eyes. When it comes to Big East play, past few years we haven’t played well. So we definitely have something to prove. We have that chip on our shoulder.”

As the senior leader and top three-point scorer on the team, some could argue he is as valuable to the team as Shamorie Ponds and the Red Storm are glad the scoring slump is over.

Mustapha Heron coming back to life?
Wendell Cruz

At the onset of the California game in the Legends Classic at the Barclays Center a group of St. John’s students held up banners saying “Mustapha for President”. Heron had opened the season on fire.

During that tournament Heron played well but it was Shamorie Ponds, who became the team’s star. More recently Heron seemed to struggle. One fan commented that “the most important thing for the Red Storm today is to get Heron untracked.”

Heron played aggressively on offense and defense. He shot 8/12 for the game and significantly 5/6 from long distance, an ability Heron seemed to have ignored in recent games. All this scoring was accomplished even though he had to come out of the game for a significant period in the first half due to early foul trouble.

As the Big East schedule begins, opposing teams will have to plan to defend Clark, Heron and Ponds as all three are able to carry the scoring load. It should be a difficult assignment.

What’s the rotation?

The undersized starting five have played marvelously as has the top reserve, Mikey Dixon. Bryan Trimble, who has rounded out the seven man rotation, has filled in adequately. He does not turn the ball over and has, at times, made a difference on the defensive end, but is not much of a scoring threat.

The impressive play of freshman Greg Williams Jr. leads to the question, will Williams be added to the seven man rotation, making it eight then nine with the anticipated return of 6’9“ Sedee Keita?

suit game on point for Sedee Keita
Wendell Cruz

Will Williams replace Brian Trimble in the rotation dropping it to eight with the return of Keita?

With the level of competition on the rise it is fair to anticipate that the athletic and, at times spectacular, Williams will be given an increasing role in the rotation.

Inconsistent defense?

Coach Mullin has said, after a number of this year’s games, “we’ve played good defense in spurts.” The game with Sacred Heart was no exception.

Sacred Heart did not score a point for the three minutes of the game. The three man, three quarters of a court press not only slowed the Pioneers down but led to Red Storm steals, which were converted into easy baskets. During these three minutes the Red Storm took down rebounds, limiting the Pioneers to one shot per possession, even though their forecourt had a clear height advantage.

However, even as St. John’s pulled away in the second half, the rebounding battle was being won by Sacred Heart, 40-29. The Pioneers, despite their poor start, had impressive shooting percentages… 50% on field goal attempts and 42% on three pointers.

What gives?

In the second half, while the Red Storm exploded offensively, Sacred Heart’s 6’8” power forward, E. J. Anosike, was attacking the offensive boards with success. Anosike shot five for eight in just 15 minutes of play, in part because of foul trouble.

Does his success predict a significant challenge for the Red Storm defenders on December 29th at Seton Hall?

On the positive side… the pressure defense of the Red Storm led to 20 Sacred Heart turnovers while the Johnnies only committed eight.

Wendell Cruz

Perhaps the expected greater challenges of division foes will lead to increased intensity on defense and “great defensive spurts” that will be longer in duration.

coaching advice from the 3rd member of Run TMC?
Wendell Cruz


Season two begins on December 29th.

It will be a brutal first four games and only one is at home. In the Johnnies’ one true away game to date, the team produced a marvelous performance versus a Rutgers team that would be at the bottom of the Big East. The recent four games, admittedly against lower rated opponents, have resulted in impressive victories.

Clark’s statement after Sacred Heart game, “we haven’t done anything yet in our eyes… we definitely have something to prove,” indicates that the team knows the challenges lying ahead are substantial.

Coach Mullin says, “we are ready”. Time will tell but the talent is without question. If we believe Clark speaks for the team, then the team truly feels it is ready for the Big East.