As St. John’s players walked up to the opening tap, Marvin Clark II was preparing to compete, as usual, with a taller opponent. As he often does, he won the tap — but only to tap the ball out of bounds.
His effort was symbolic of the St. John’s effort of the day in the 85-71 win over (winless) Mount St. Mary’s. St. John’s pushed the ball up court after a rebound or steal all game, only to make a pass that led to a turnover or a poor alley-oop attempt.
It wasn’t until the six minute mark of the second half that the first and only alley-oop attempt was successful. Five earlier ones missed the mark — thrilling in theory, disturbing in reality.
On the defensive end the Johnnies were, at times, able to force Mount St. Mary’s to take rushed shots; but there were equally times that Mountaineer players were left open for uncontested threes, particularly in the first ten minutes of the game.
First Half: Where is the defense?
The game jumped to a 5-0 Mountaineer lead at the one minute mark. Baskets by Clark and Simon tied the score but Mount St. Mary’s responded to push the lead back to 10-5 at the 17:09 mark.
For the next four minutes it was the Mountaineers versus Clark who, during that span, hit three three-pointers.
At the 14:20 mark of the first half the Johnnies led 17-16. The Johnnies were hitting on 2/3 of their field goal attempts while the Mountaineers were converting 71 percent. “Where is the defense?!” several fans were asking, the obvious question.
The lead seesawed back and forth for the next four minutes with Mount St. Mary’s up by three at the 10-minute mark. Without Clark’s heroics, the deficit would have been much greater.
Mustapha Heron started attacking the basket. And the Johnnies went into a three-quarter length zone press that caused the Mountaineers to have to make several passes coming up the court. That slowdown led to several chaotic offensive possessions, with poor shots being taken as time on the 30-second clock was running out.
At the 10-minute mark Justin Simon and Clark returned to the game, joined by freshman Greg Williams Jr. Williams hit a three from the right corner, putting the Johnnies up 27-25 to give the Red Storm the lead for the rest of the game.
Similar to the game against Maryland Eastern Shore on November 27, Shamorie Ponds played the role of distributor in the first half of the game and did not score. Mount St. Mary’s started playing mostly zone defenses. St. John’s led by five, 42-37.
As the Johnnies took their warm-ups prior to the beginning of the second half, it was noticed that several of the players, Ponds, Heron, Clark and Simon were all taking three point shots and converting most of them. There were minimal moments of driving to the basket and dunking the ball during the warmups.
A season ticket holder, waiting with for the second half to start with me, stated that he was not nervous about the game’s eventual outcome and expected Ponds to step up his attack on the basket when the Johnnies had the ball. He admitted that the Mountaineers were doing a good job collapsing on Ponds when he attacked the basket.
Second Half: Ponds emerges and the defense intensifies
On the Johnnies’ first offensive possession a screen was set for Ponds to cut around and drive to the basket for a running left handed hook shot.
On their very next possession, another screen was set opening Ponds up for a successful three pointer from the top of the paint.
The message was clear. Despite the game plan to double and triple team Ponds whenever he attacked the basket, the Red Storm were going to run plays set up to free Ponds from his defender.
It worked, and after the first minute of play, the lead had jumped to nine, 47-38. It looked like St. John’s was ready to break the game open, allowing the team to experiment with new plays and to give bench players an opportunity to learn their role.
Freshman Dee Barnes of the Mountaineers was continuing his hot shooting. Midway through the second half Barnes had raised his total points to 22. Ponds began guarding him and his offensive prowess dropped. He finished the game with 26 points.
The Mountaineers kept attacking the Red Storm, unafraid to challenge them in an up-tempo game, but the Johnnies made some adjustments at the half to slow them down. The Mountaineers made 31 percent of their three-point attempts in the second half — after hitting on 67 percent in the first six minutes. Their field goal percentage dropped from 71% to 34% for the second half.
As fans were leaving the arena, they observed a Red Storm players in a team meeting at mid-court with a passionate Marvin Clark taking the lead and his teammates listening intensely.
Takeaway One: The defensive lapses
The Johnnies aggressively confront their opponents, but have lapses as a result of trying to step into a passing late and leaving their man open.
Due to being undersized the team does double team a lot to give interior support and rebound. This can leave opponents open, particularly in the corners, for uncontested jump shots. Sometimes in transition, multiple players will shade toward the basket and not pick up a player running to the corner. In addition, the ability to play a switching man to man defense takes time as players get to know their teammates tendencies on the defensive end.
The Johnnies dropped into a zone near the beginning of the second half and it was immediately defeated, leaving a Mountaineer open in the corner for a successful three-point attempt. It was back to the man to man after that.
The use of the three-quarters press as the Mountaineers took out the ball under their basket appeared successful. Mount St. Mary’s was beginning their offense with twenty seconds to shoot and many of these possessions were rushed and unsuccessful.
Takeaway Two: Those alley-oop passes
As fans, we need to be realistic. There is no other play that brings the crowd to its feet like a successful alley-oop pass. The pass from Ponds to Simon for a backhanded dunk with six minutes left in the second half was the spectacular play of the game. The fans acknowledged this athletic feat by standing and cheering enthusiastically.
However, five other alley-oop attempts which preceded that play were not successful. In these cases the passes were slightly off. On the fourth attempt, L. J. Figueroa was fouled, despite the poor pass, and made one of two foul shots. Thus, on six plays the Johnnies came up with three points.
Against a stronger opponent, so many misses might become the difference between winning and losing.
The coaching staff needs to develop guidelines as to when to use this exciting but undependable offensive play. The pass and leap have to be perfect, as does the follow through dunk.
St. John’s made 57 percent of its field goal attempts, hit 48 percent from three point distance and 16 percent when trying the alley-oop pass.
Takeaway Three: How should Ponds take over the game as Point Guard?
In the first half, it was clear that the Mountaineer players were advised to double-team, even triple-team Shamorie Ponds any time he drove to the basket. Ponds made the best of these circumstances by feeding his teammates, one of the reasons the team shot with a high percentage.
It also led to a balanced scoring by the starting five as Clark scored 21 points, followed by Heron with 17, Simon with 14 and Figueroa with 13. Ponds scored 11 points, all in the second half.
In the second half the Red Storm ran two successful plays for Ponds at the onset and he responded by hitting a running hook shot then a three pointer. Yet on two other occasions he ignored easy layups and, instead, passed off to teammates for open threes, one made and one missed. The result: three points for the Johnnies when Ponds most likely would have scored four.
Perhaps the game plan has been to lesson his offense in order to assist his teammates in developing their own. Time will tell, but fans are puzzled.
It has been over a quarter of a century since St. John’s has begun a season 8-0. This year’s performances have been choppy.
However, in the midst of the inconsistent play one thing remains consistent. At least one or two of the starters consistently comes through to lead the team to victory.
The Red Storm were outrebounded by the Mountaineers for most of the game last night, even though the final totals had each team grabbing 31 rebounds. L.J. Figueroa led the Red Storm with eleven rebounds. Soon 6’9” Sedee Keita will hopefully be back and the Johnnies should have some assistance in regards to their ability to compete on the boards.
It was good to see Greg Williams contribute in the first half, hitting the three pointer from the right corner that put the Johnnies ahead to stay. He also competed on the defensive end.
What will ultimately be the rotation? Will it include Williams and how does Keita fit in? The potential exists for a memorable season but, as Shamorie Ponds stated after the game, there is still work to be done.
This is no longer an inexperienced team. With Big East schools starting to play more consistently and on a higher level, the team has a few more games to find the consistency it will need to compete day in and day out during the upcoming Big East season.
Veteran leadership is needed and was seen as Marvin Clark convened a players’ meeting at mid-court before the team left the floor to the student band playing a medley of holiday carols. May the hopes of continued improvement continue onto Madison Square Garden for the Holiday Festival game against Princeton on December 9th, the first of five contests at the Garden this season.