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Three takeaways: seniors step forward for a surprise win over the Butler Bulldogs

Simon leads the way at crunch time; outstanding defense, and adjusting to a game without Ponds.

Tariq Owens jumps on Amar Alibegovic
Wendell Cruz

The fan’s recap of the Wednesday win over Butler...

“Where is Shamorie Ponds?” was the question every Red Storm fan asked as St. John’s warmed up for their rematch with the Butler University Bulldogs.

To a person, the fans expected a significantly better outcome than the shellacking at the hands of Butler on January 27th.

But hopes for a victory without Ponds? That was a pipe dream, or so many fans thought.

Nevertheless, Carnesecca Arena was energized for Senior Night, and it was nice to see the always hustling Amar Alibegovic in the starting lineup, a chance to say goodbye. And there was Bashir Ahmed. One fan hoped that he could “take the lead and help make up for the loss of Ponds’ expected scoring.”

Fans say goodbye to the two scholarship seniors, Amar Alibegovic and Bashir Ahmed.
Wendell Cruz

First Half

The game began with two threes by Ahmed sandwiched around a short jumper by Butler’s star forward, Kelan Martin, and a free throw by Tyler Wideman. Tariq Owens, early on, served notice that the Johnnies were ready to play by blocking a twenty-five footer by Sean McDermott on the right wing.

At the first T.V. timeout, at 14:58, Butler led 9-8.

After play resumed Justin Simon found himself guarded by a much smaller Kamar Baldwin. The Johnnies fed Simon, who backed down Baldwin and hit a nine foot jumper while being fouled by Baldwin. This has been a nice play all season long for the Red Storm; Simon has been successful in backing down shorter defenders at his position.

Simon’s shot and his made free throw gave the Johnnies the lead. Shortly thereafter, Owens stepped into a passing lane and intercepted a Bulldog pass. He sprinted down the court and dunked the ball for a 13-9 St. John’s lead.

Tariq Owens streaks for the breakaway dunk
Wendell Cruz

Fans began to believe that the Johnnies were ready to compete and chants of “Defense… defense” filled the arena.

Kassoum Yakwe entered the game at 9:27 and immediately pulled down a rebound. He remained in the game for several minutes, took down two rebounds but did not score. However, his efforts were important to the Johnnies. The starters would need some rest, although no one knew how much rest would truly be necessary as the game wore on into extra frames.

By 7:45, a pattern was emerging: St. John’s was shooting at 57% while Butler was cold, but that was not enough to get separation; the game remained close. One issue for the Red Storm was an unusual amount of turnovers, several of them being the result of careless passing. To the team’s credit, adjustments were made and the unforced turnovers began to drop.

At the 1:10 mark a twelve foot jumper by Martin put the Bulldogs ahead. However, on two straight Bulldog possessions in the final minute of play Simon made two steals, both of them resulting in points, first a dunk and a short time later, a layup.

Justin Simon dunks
Wendell Cruz

St John’s went into the locker room at the half leading 28-25.

Halftime

One fan texted his family at home with the message, “No Ponds, no problem”.

Others kept talking about the Red Storm’s defense.

All players were actively defending and covering when a Butler player broke free. On more than one occasion a Butler guard drove past his defender to the basket then drove back out, not wanting to challenge the upward hands of Owens and Alibegovic. The shooting percentage for Butler (34% and 25% from the three point distance) was evidence of the defense’s performance.

In particular, Alibegovic was not giving ground under the basket. Wideman, who in the past has been a terror for St. John’s’ defenders, had three points and took down four rebounds for the game.

Fans also noted that Bulldog jump shooters had a hand in their face on most shots.

Second Half

The Bulldogs did not score during the first four and a half minutes of the second half. The Johnnies’ defense continued to clamp down, forcing two turnovers and causing enough resistance that Butler missed their first seven shots.

The Red Storm built a 37-25 lead.

Bashir Ahmed drives through two defenders
Wendell Cruz

Just as Red Storm fans were anticipating an upset, Paul Jorgensen went on a personal seven point scoring spree and the Johnnies’ lead was suddenly down to seven.

Jorgensen, who had brought the Bulldogs back into the game, then made a costly mental mistake, receiving a technical for arguing with a fan (about being from New City, NY, apparently). Marvin Clark II hit both foul shots, and the Johnnies were once again up by three.

Butler took the lead on a Baldwin three at the 7:10 mark. The Johnnies did not panic. Simon, playing the point guard position, slowed the game down and kept the Johnnies within reach.

Nevertheless, time was running out on what the fans deemed was another valiant effort in a loss. It seemed like, in so many games, a strong stretch would be undone by depth problems, and the team would have another crushing loss.

Then the “good fortune” that had avoided the Johnnies all year long turned their way.

With the Johnnies down by five and 15 seconds remaining, Simon sprinted down the court, dribbled into the paint, then spun around. He fed the ball back to the top of the key for Marvin Clark, who sank a three pointer. It was his only three pointer of the game.

Justin Simon signals as Tariq Owens, Amar Alibegovic and Marvin Clark gather during a timeout
Wendell Cruz

There were eight seconds left to play, and a timeout was called. Fans were discussing which Bulldog to foul when one fan said, “Play tough defense upcourt and try to induce Butler to throw one of those long passes. They become a toss up to catch.”

Sure enough, the long pass was the play called. Kelan Martin of Butler and Marvin Clark raced down the court for a pass thrown a little too long. As the ball was going out of bounds, which would have been a Butler infraction, Martin reached out and threw the ball off Clark as he fell out of bounds. The call was “Butler ball” but it was close.

The officials took a time out that lasted for over three minutes. Johnnies fans, noting the difficulty the officials were having, decided to assist.

A small group began, and then hundreds of fans stood up and rhythmically joined in, pointing a finger towards the basket the Johnnies were shooting at and calling out, “change that call! change that call!”

After deliberating one of the officials went to speak to the Butler bench while a second energetically pointed his arm in the direction of the basket Butler was defending. The arena became exponentially louder.

With eleven seconds on the clock, Simon brought the ball up and the Red Storm set the stage for one last drive to the hoop, resulting in a Simon bucket with four seconds left to play. A 30-foot jumper by Baldwin just missed... and it was overtime.

Overtimes

It took two overtimes.

In the first, the Johnnies jumped out in front by six and Butler clawed their way back to send the game to a second.

In the second overtime the Johnnies tied the game on a Clark layup with 1:18 to go. When Baldwin missed a layup and Simon rebounded with under a minute to play the crowd was on their feet and never sat down.

Simon hit a driving layup to put the Johnnies ahead and then deflected the ball, causing a Baldwin turnover and was fouled. He hit two free throws to put the Red Storm up by four.

When Marvin Clark went to the line to shoot two free throws with the Red Storm up by five, the crowd erupted “We are … St. John’s …We are ... St. John’s”.

After Clark hit his free throws and the Johnnies led by seven, Coach Mullin called timeout to let Ahmed and Alibegovic come out to recognition and cheers from the fans. It was a perfect last game at Carnesecca for the two seniors.

Amar Alibegovic comes off the floor for the last time
Wendell Cruz
Tariq Owens jumps on Alibegovic’s back; AD Anton Goff shakes with Justin Simon
Wendell Cruz

Three Takeaways

Once Again – Balanced Scoring

Simon (24 points) stepped up at the end of the game and Ahmed (22 points) led the Johnnies at the beginning. Along with the two leading scorers was Clark (20 points). The only other Johnnie to score was Owens with nine points but he also added eight rebounds and three timely blocks.

Without Shamorie Ponds the others took responsibility and demonstrated that they have the ability to score and execute the offense. Simon was able to go one on one with the smaller guards of Butler, both posting them up and driving hard to the basket.

Ahmed showed versatility, going 3/6 on three point attempts and 7/14 overall. He also converted all of his foul shots.

Clark hit perhaps the biggest bucket of the game, his only three pointer when the game was on the line with 12 seconds left in regulation.

The coaching staff has a significant and doable challenge — find a way for Ponds to blend in without negating all the strengths apparent tonight.

Take away Two: That Defense

St. John’s held Butler, averaging 80 points per game, to 58 points in regulation time and 68 points overall.

Everyone played their role well. Simon is perhaps the strongest one on one defender and Owens is the shot blocker and rim protector. Alibegovic played an excellent game. He switched off when a Bulldog drove towards the basket and seemed to be in the right place at the right time on most plays.

Clark rotates well and is fearless in challenging opponents driving to the basket and Ahmed appears to have the quickest feet and often receives the assignment of the top opposing mobile wing player.

Together they blanketed Butler leaving them only a few easy backdoor cuts late in the game.

Takeaway Three: the Turnovers

The Red Storm had 24 turnovers for the game, well above their 14-per-game average.

Several of these were unforced, especially in the first half. Passes were thrown to teammates after they had left their position, fast breaks were initiated too quickly.

Two things should be noted. The first – the unforced errors seemed to be corrected as the game wore on, as the players got use to playing without Shamorie Ponds, who is an integral part of the team’s passing and fast break offense. Secondly, Butler is a well-coached team and they were able to anticipate certain offensive moves and step into passing lanes to intercept passes.

Bashir Ahmed, Tariq Owens and Justin Simon are pumped
Wendell Cruz

Outlook

If the Red Storm can defeat a tournament-bound team without the Red Storm’s top scorer then we must believe that, on any given day, the sky is the limit for this team. The play of Alibegovic on Wednesday to complement the scorers on this team may be very important if the team wins two or more games in the tournament.

Is there an upset, similar to the Duke and Villanova teams, left for this team in the tournament?

But first there is business to take care of.

A win over Providence on Saturday means a NIT bid is possible (though still a long shot). And, of course, there will be no upsets in the tournament if the Red Storm do not win game one on the first night of the tournament. So one game at a time. Go Johnnies.