Despite the record of the Johnnies (10-13, and on an 11 game losing streak), the seats in Madison Square Garden filled up rapidly for what would be a memorable matchup between Duke and St. John’s.
As a sellout crowd was emerging, a long time season ticket holder was asked, “any prediction today?”
The response was to the point. “Pain, …pain,” and, after a five second pause, “Duke pain.”
The game began with Tariq Owens tipping off against Duke’s sensational freshman, Marvin Bagley III.
Bagley won the jump, and it was noted that Bashir Ahmed was defending Duke’s senior star, Grayson Allen. This is four days after Ahmed’s assignment in the Xavier game on seniors Trevon Bluiett and J.P. Macura. Ahmed seems to be designated the task of defending the opponents’ higher scoring wings or big guards. He tracked Allen all around the court as Allen attempted to run him off screens set by teammates.
Gary Trent, Jr. opened the scoring with a three from the left corner. Twenty seconds later Owens laid the ball in after freeing himself on a Simon drive into the paint. This was a play the Red Storm used throughout the game with great success particularly in the first half.
Duke made its first four three-point attempts, three by Trent. St. John’s Shamorie Ponds countered with a ten-footer from the right of the paint, and then a three after a steal by Bashir Ahmed. At the 15:41 time out Duke led 12-11 with all of their points coming on three-point shots.
Duke managed to keep itself ahead by between 1 and 5 points for the first eleven minutes of the game. In addition to hitting threes, the Duke big men, led by Bagley, attacked the offensive boards and scored on put back attempts after missed Blue Devil shots.
St. John’s countered a soft Blue Devil defense with either Ponds or Justin Simon penetrating and passing to a cutting Owens for easy dunks or layups.
At 10:36, Owens picked up his second foul and had to leave the game. Most of the Johnnies had at least one foul called on them while no fouls had yet been called on the Blue Devils.
At the 6:03 TV timeout, St. Johns had accumulated eight fouls to one for Duke and fans were becoming restless. Duke was shooting threes at a 57% rate with the Red Storm shooting 38%. Duke was outrebounding the Johnnies 15-6 but St. John’s, as has been their history this year, was staying in games by winning the turnover battle, (Duke: 8, St. John’s: 6). Duke led 29 -23.
At 4:30 Simon again broke down the Duke defense driving into the paint then passing to Owens for his fourth uncontested layup of the game. Duke countered with Trent’s fourth three-pointer of the half. They led 35-28. A fan worried, “let’s not go into the half behind by double digits.”
Ahmed was picking his moments to drive to the basket often along the baseline. Chants of “let’s Go Johnnies” rang out across the stands.
The teams traded baskets in the last minute of the half and with nine seconds left, Ponds drove the length of the court and was fouled. He missed the first foul shot and Duke led 39-32 at the half.
As would be expected by the halftime score Duke led in most statistical categories, including rebounding (Duke: 18, St. John’s: 8), field goal percentage (Duke: 55%, St. John’s: 50%), three point shooting (Duke: 62%, St. John’s 37%) and foul shots, where Duke had 13 attempts and the Red Storm had but three attempts.
The Red Storm did make two more field goals than Duke, despite shooting a lower percentage, and forced more turnovers. In the half, Duke had 12 turnovers to seven for the Red Storm.
The halftime discussion from Chris Mullin was, according to Tariq Owens, that “we were right there, they were up at the half and we had to come out and make a statement and set the tone in the second half.”
It did not take long for the Garden to come alive. Simon drove across the key and pulled up hitting a ten footer.
At 18:41, Ponds hit a 24-foot three pointer. The Duke lead was now two.
After a tip-in by Bagley, Ponds drove left and scored on a layup, cutting the Duke lead to 41-39.
St. John’s fans were on their feet. On the next Blue Devil possession Bagley was called for an offensive foul to which Ponds responded with a 25-foot three-pointer.
St. John’s now led 42-41... but there were still seventeen minutes of basketball to be played. This was the first lead in the game for the Red Storm and chants of “let’s Go Johnnies” could be heard throughout a packed Garden.
At 16:22 a Ponds drive with a pass to Owens again resulted in an Owens dunk. The Johnnies’ lead was now three.
Led by Ponds and Ahmed, the lead expanded to 11 by the 8:36 mark. The Johnnies were believing in themselves, having outscored the Blue Devils in the second half, 32 to 14.
But nothing has come easy for the Red Storm this season. Duke got hot and seemed to score on every possession, cutting away the Johnnies’ lead.
Over the next six minutes, the Red Storm lead withered away as the Johnnies tried to take time off the game clock, starting their attack on the the basket with half of the thirty second clock used up. With 1:35 to play Gary Trent hit two free throws and Duke retook the lead, 73 to 72.
In past games the Johnnies have struggled at just this moment of the game. But today, the team showed poise and executed. Ponds drove from the right and his layup ten seconds later returned the lead to the Red Storm.
Duke’s Trevon Duval missed two critical free throws with Johnnies’ fans cheering at their loudest with 1:09 left. Ponds rebounded Duval’s second miss and passed to Owens who missed a layup.
Unlike other games, it was the Red Storm attacking the offensive glass, gathering in the missed shot. Chris Mullin’s team called timeout. At the 39 second mark Ponds made a long jumper from the right with the hand of a Blue Devil in his face.
St. John’s led by four but nine seconds later, Grayson Allen took a pass from a teammate, curled around towards the top of the key and hit his only three of the game. (Bashir Ahmed’s defense was so effective, we forgot about the talented senior.)
The Red Storm lead was one with 29 seconds left in the game. On the inbounds pass Owens was fouled by Duval. Owens calmly made both free throws for a three point lead. With twenty seconds to go Allen missed a three but Bagley took down the rebound and got fouled. He hit one of two free throws.
Ponds was fouled on the inbounds pass and hit one out of two and Owens rebounded an Allen miss with eleven seconds to go. Owens hit one of two free throws to seal a hard fought 81-77 victory for a determined, hustling Red Storm team.
Ponds, Owens, Ahmed
They scored 69 of the team’s 81 points led by Ponds’ 33. All three players connected on over 50% of their field goal attempts and Ponds and Ahmed, together, hit 7 out of 12 three point attempts.
Shamorie’s jumper might be returning and he is nearly impossible to stop on one-on-one drives to the basket. Bashir’s statistics are similar to last year but he is more under control; and his defense seems to have improved.
Meanwhile, most impressively, Tariq Owens held his own against a deep Duke front line with size, quickness and agility — and delivered an emphatic performance of dunks and layups.
Extra opportunities: rebounding and turnovers
At the 7:35 TV timeout, Duke had taken down 32 rebounds (14 offensive) to 23 for St. John’s (10 offensive).
By the end of the game Duke led in total rebounds 36 to 33 but St. John’s had one more offensive rebound than Duke.
What happened? The Red Storm, led by their two guards Ponds (seven rebounds) and Simon (five rebounds), began pounding the offensive glass. As the game wore on, the hustling Johnnies were taking back their misses under the basket and on long rebounds, resetting the thirty second clock. There were sequences near the end of the game when the Red Storm took down multiple offensive rebounds and, even when not scoring, extended their time of possession - taking valuable time from Duke’s chances of a comeback.
The team’s pressure defense resulted in more turnovers and transition opportunities. Duke, known for its low turnover ratio, committed 18 turnovers to the Johnnies’ 11.
They didn’t fold
The Johnnies led by one with 42 seconds left, calling a timeout.
Fans remembered the timeout called at almost the same time in the Xavier game where the set plan broke down and the Johnnies did not even get a shot off.
Not this time.
Tariq Owens explained it after the game: “this game we made an emphasis and at every timeout we talked out not making mental mistakes.”
“We just stayed composed,” Shamorie Ponds added. “We never broke or folded. We just stuck with our game plan.... We just tried to go out there and break the ice and today we did. We are happy but we can’t stop here, we have to keep pushing.”
Even a win over the number four team in the country does not predict success in the seven games left. What this win does is give a team in need of a confidence boost that needed boost.
On to Villanova, ranked number one in the nation. Everyone agrees that St. John’s has talent, particularly the starting five. Is it too much to ask for an away game win? Villanova is down one of its stalwarts, Phil Booth. Does this open a door for the Johnnies?
One thing I am sure of is this - the players believe they can defeat anyone. Do we?