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Three takeaways: St John’s moves the ball, made Creighton work

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Defense steps up to complement balanced scoring of starters... but what about the reserves?

LJ Figueroa brought the energy
Wendell Cruz

The pregame questions, of course, were “will Shamorie Ponds play” and “will Ponds’ injury hold him back in any way”? No one knew but most St. John’s Red Storm fans were optimistic. They extolled the performances of Justin Simon and LJ Figueroa in the DePaul game, whether pr not Ponds got on the floor.

Another, though, questioned about the ceiling for Sedee Keita.

Was there an offensive side in his game? He demonstrated his ability to protect the rim by blocking four shots in 18 minutes of the DePaul game. But is he able to hold his ground against the stronger post players in the Big East? Can he shoot? Can he score in traffic inside?

The consensus on the St. John’s big man Keita was that he needs time. One fan summarized, “Keita’s experience so far this year is like being in Spring Training.”

As we walked from 1870 Court to the arena one young lady exclaimed, “There he is… and he’s in uniform.”

He was, and is Shamorie Ponds. Ready to go.

Red Suit Guy & Stripes
Wendell Cruz

The game

Creighton won the tip and the students behind the basket immediately began chanting “Defense!… defense!” The student fan base, settled in from winter vacation/ semester break, kept up the cheers throughout the game.

The Red Storm opened in a two-three zone which Creighton beat easily, feeding the post to Martin Krampelj under the basket for a layup.

Despite a promising start, with Shamorie Ponds dribbling into the left wing, then dishing to Justin Simon for a jumper, there were clouds.

Mustapha Heron had an ominous start. At 17:34 he slipped to the floor and was called for his second foul.

Heron defends
Wendell Cruz

Two minutes in, and Sedee Keita replaced him, replacing one of the team’s best scorers with an offensive question mark.

Keita started well; on their next possession Justin Simon fed Keita in the low post who quickly pitched out to Figueroa for a three. Figueroa then drove through the paint and hit a six-footer for a 7-6 lead.

Then, quick ball movement found Keita 18 feet from the basket at the top of the key. He stroked a two-pointer and St. John’s regained the lead. It would be his only two points of the game — and the only two points scored by any of the reserves.

Creighton found success moving the ball quickly and finding teammates open under the basket, but five minutes in, had only attempted one three-pointer. The Bluejays take nearly half their shots from deep, normally.

The Johnnies controlled the defensive boards. The first offensive rebound for the Bluejays came at the 12:20 mark. Unlike past games, the Red Storm, were effectively boxing out.

With a mix of first and second stringers on the floor (Greg Williams Jr. and Bryan Trimble Jr. on the floor, at this point) the Johnnies began to lose their intensity on offense. Creighton regained the lead. That lead was eight after a Krampelj dunk. Mullin called a time out. Creighton had eight assists to three for the Johnnies and clearly had a more fluid offense to this part of the game.

After the game Ponds reported that Coach Mullin told him during the timeout that “it was time to go.”

Ponds drives against a double team
Wendell Cruz

And go he did. Ponds hit a turnaround twelve footer to be followed by a Figueroa put back of his own miss. “Defense!… defense...!” filled the arena. A Ponds three cut the lead to six at 28-22. Thirty seconds later he hit a jumper and the Bluejay lead was down to four.

The Red Storm defense began to tighten. The Bluejays were no longer finding uncovered teammates under the basket for easy layups.

After a Creighton turnover, Ponds hit a cutting Simon with a pretty over the shoulder pass. Simon was fouled but missed the foul shot. However, today was the day for the Johnnies to take down offensive rebounds; Marvin Clark got the board and laid the ball into the basket and the Creighton lead was no more with the game tied at 31.

At 4:05 it was Simon’s time to demonstrate his skills. He uncorked a 30-foot pass to a driving Figueroa, who hit a reverse layup and the Johnnies took the lead 33 to 31. It was the play of the game.

With 40 seconds to play in the half Ponds beat a double team with a drive to the basket and a pull up ten footer from the right corner The Red Storm led by five, 39-34.

Both the team and the fans were ready as the second half began.

Heron, who had not scored in the first half, fought for an offensive rebound and was fouled giving the Johnnies a second chance to score.

Mustapha Heron Strong.
Wendell Cruz

Ponds took advantage driving to the hoop and was fouled, hitting one out of two. The lead was now six, 40-34.

The Bluejays continued to compete, and seven points by Damion Mintz brought them within one at the 16:11 media timeout.

Anxious fans were now murmuring about a close game. But the Johnnies were leading the Bluejays in one significant statistic – overall rebounding at 24 to 19. The Bluejays had few offensive rebounds, unlike the ability of opponents to control the boards in the losses to Villanova and DePaul.

Coming out of the timeout the Johnnies ran a play featuring Heron setting up low, taking a pass from Marvin Clark and powering his way for a short turnaround and a three-point lead. Heron attacked the basket a minute later in a similar play and the Johnnies were up, 46-41.

The defense tightened, and the ball movement was prevalent as the game progressed.

Three, sometimes four Red Storm players touched the ball on all possessions and good shots were being taken.

After a media timeout at 11:18 the Johnnies went into a zone. The zone, at first, slowed the Bluejays down, but the Jays found their rhythm and their freshman forward Christian Bishop eventually was open and hit a two. On their next possession, Mintz hit an open three over the zone.

The zone experiment was over and the Red Storm were back in their aggressive man-to-man thereafter for the rest of the game.

The Bluejays were hanging within comeback distance until just after the 7:44 media timeout.

Another stirring performance by the dance team had energized the crowd, who responded with a loud ovation after the performance. The energy carried over to the team.

Joy in Carneseccaville
Wendell Cruz

Over a 15-second span Figueroa scored on two offensive put backs sandwiched around a Ponds steal of the Bluejays’ inbound pass. The lead was now double digits. Mustapha Heron joined in; in the last five minutes, he scored 10 points.

Creighton attempted to press the Johnnies with several minutes to go and a fan exclaimed, “they cannot press us. It plays into our hands!”

Ponds and Simon joined Heron in late scoring, each Johnnie taking turns breaking the press and finding easy basket opportunities.

Three Takeaways

Balanced scoring including ball movement: The Red Storm offense was impressive and entertaining.

Ponds showed ballhandling magic, with over the shoulder and behind the back passes, on target. Simon made a beautiful length of the court throw to Figueroa for a dunk and, during Heron’s 10-point outburst at the end of the game he was first assisted by Ponds then by Simon, by Clark and finally by Figueroa. Every starter played a role.

The final stats for the game also demonstrated the balance on the team. Ponds led with 22 points and five assists, followed by Simon with 16 and three assists.

Figueroa also had 16 points with two assists and led the team with 13 rebounds. Marvin Clark II had seven points, two assists and 10 rebounds. Heron was the second leading scorer on the team with 18 second half points and took down three rebounds.

The team was able to get good shots on almost every possession, particularly from the 8:00 mark of the first half through the end of the game. The Johnnies shot 48% for the game and hit 44% of their three point attempts. The only concern was the lackluster 67% on free throw attempts.

The defense that makes opponents work: The Johnnies opened with a zone defense for one Creighton possession and it was easily beaten. Quick passing and a disciplined Bluejay team continued to find teammates open under the basket for easy layups but, as the game progressed, the Johnnies’ defense tightened.

Creighton entered the game averaging 81 points per game, and the Red Storm held them to 66.

The Johnnies, despite Creighton trying to run, held them to only a couple of fast break buckets as the team regularly got back on defense. The three possessions against the zone were effective for Creighton, but the Red Storm did not lean on the zone for long.

St. John’s held Creighton to 31% shooting on threes; they were hitting 42% coming into the game. The deficiencies of covering particularly the open corner threes, so prevalent earlier in the season, seem to have been worked out.

Chris Mullin, perplexed?
Wendell Cruz

Waiting/ hoping for the reserves: The reserve unit scored two points, took down three rebounds and assisted on one basket.

Sedee Keita and Bryan Trimble each played fourteen minutes with Greg Williams Jr. logging four minutes. Marcellus Earlington and Josh Roberts joined an all reserve unit for the final minute of play.

If Mustapha Heron had not gotten his second foul two and a half minutes into the game these numbers may have been less.

The Johnnies front five logged in an average of 33 minutes for the game. They did not appear winded and the performance of the starters impressively became more efficient as the game progressed.

The concern is, of course, for the future — the Big East Tournament and the postseason. Games are played on consecutive days and support from the reserve unit will be necessary.

Sedee Keita backs down Creighton’s freshman forward
Wendell Cruz

Questions about Sedee Keita’s production remain.

He had no blocks but Creighton, after the first few minutes, was not attacking the glass with regularity. The visitors took 58% of their field goal attempts from three point territory for the game.

Keita hit an 18-foot jumper earlier in the game and one fan remarked “Blocks shot and hits long distance three… reminds me of Tariq Owens.”

Perhaps Keita will continue to develop an offensive game — and become a devastating defensive presence — as Owens did during his two years with the Red Storm.

Greg Williams appears to have potential to contribute and it is hoped that he will receive the opportunity to develop his game before the upcoming tournament.

Outlook

On to Butler, who ran DePaul off the court, as the Johnnies were battling Creighton.

Away games in the Big East are always challenging. Games at Butler have been a huge challenge, with the Johnnies losing by an average of 23 point in the last four games.

Butler provides an opportunity to obtain a needed victory away with a week’s long rest afterwards. As long as Ponds is healthy, this team should compete at Butler on January 19th.