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Three takeaways: a 40 minute defensive effort stymies the Golden Eagles

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Defense stops Howard, defense was fast, plus unforced turnovers

On New Year’s Day, fans filled the Carnesecca Arena.

Despite the controversy over the ending of the Seton Hall game, there was surprisingly little mention of it. I did talk to one person who wanted to dwell on the game as we waited for the Johnnies to start their home Big East opener.

One fan, who attended that game in Newark, shared his observation that, before the game, the Johnnies were hitting jump shots with regularity in warm up drills. However, during the halftime warmups, the team was coming up short on their shots.

“As the second half began, I was concerned, even though we were the better team,” he shared. He was sure the game was lost due to the starters becoming fatigued, not because of a referee’s call at the end of the contest.

On the whole fans were believers that St. John’s would finish the night with a Big East win. “[The players] will be psyched tonight,” was an assumption heard from more than one fan.

After the starting fives were introduced, there was a brief lull in the start of the game as the referees waited for the television coverage to catch up.

Shamorie Ponds took this break to go down the Red Storm bench and shook the hand of every reserve sitting there. We could not, of course, hear what he said. But the body language of everyone appeared to be determined, focused, to be “tonight we do it!”

Wendell Cruz

First Half

The highlight of the game for the Golden Eagles of Marquette likely occurred in the first 20 seconds. Six-foot-nine inch Theo John easily won the tap and, after a few crisp passes, Marquette found Joey Hauser alone in the left corner and he drilled a three ball. For a moment, they looked like a hard-to-stop team.

Shortly thereafter, LJ Figueroa beat his defender on a backdoor cut to the basket and received a perfect lob from Justin Simon and the Golden Eagle lead was cut to three to two.

At the 18:20 mark Shamorie Ponds drove through the key on the right side, laying the ball in for a 4-3 Red Storm lead. Chants of “defense… defense” erupted from the sold out crowd, ready to back their side.

Justin Simon was given the assignment of defending Markus Howard, the leading scorer in the Big East. When Howard freed himself via teammates’ screens, other Johnnies smoothly picked him up. It was an impressive defensive effort that resulted in the Big East’s leading scorer becoming a non-factor in the game (he scored 8 points).

Over the next two minutes, Ponds outscored the entire Marquette team nine to two and the Red Storm led 13-5 with 16:15 to play.

Sedee Keita, injured since the second game against Bowling Green, entered the game at the under-16 time out. He was followed by Greg Williams Jr. and Mikey Dixon at the next break in action, giving the starters short rest periods in the game. Dixon fed Justin Simon in the paint, who hit a nice 10-foot turnaround jumper for a 17-10 lead.

Marvin Clark defends Markus Howard
Wendell Cruz

Marquette began to crawl back into the game and Howard scored his first points — a pair of free throws. The Golden Eagles were now attacking the basket more frequently, and finding decent ball movement.

At the 8:53 mark, Marquette claimed the lead 21 to 19 on a Howard three pointer. One statistic that stuck out at that moment: Marquette was hitting 60% on three ball attempts. St. John’s was hitting 17% of their attempts.

This would not continue.

Justin Simon put the Johnnies ahead 22-21 with a three ball and, for the next five minutes the lead changed hands several times, with neither team holding more than a two-point lead until Marvin Clark was fouled by Howard and made two free throws to put the Johnnies ahead 30-27 with just over three minutes left in the half.

Most distressing on the floor were the nine turnovers committed by the Red Storm including a segment of the game which included two badly missed alley-oop attempts, sandwiched around an aggressive Ponds full court pass that was intercepted by Marquette.

In addition there were two “shuffling the feet” traveling calls on the Johnnies.

However, Ponds scored nine points in the last two and a half minutes of the half, and the Johnnies went into the halftime break leading 39 to 31.

Feeling it
Wendell Cruz

Markus Howard shot one for ten against the switching man to man defense by the Johnnies, rarely giving him anything but unbalanced shots with Red Storm hands in his face.

Second Half

Mustapha Heron, who had been hot in recent games, was scoreless in the first half.

With the Johnnies taking the ball out at the start of the second half, St. John’s set up a nice play feeding Heron as he cut to the basket and was fouled, a solid call coming out of the break by the staff. He hit his two free throws, the first of the 16 points Heron would score in the second half.

After a three by Howard, Ponds responded with a head feint and a three from the top of the key, which caused the Marquette defender to throw his hands up in the air seemingly saying, “what else was I supposed to do?”

Markus Howard started the half with two fouls committed on defense. And so, whenever a St. John’s guard was being defended by 5’11” Howard, the Johnnies spread the floor and the attacking guard backed Howard into the basket, resulting in short turnaround jumpers, many of which were successful.

John McEnroe and new St. John’s AD Mike Cragg cheering the Johnnies on
Wendell Cruz

Another backdoor cut resulted in a layup by LJ Figueroa then a Ponds’ drive with a pitch back to Clark, who nailed a 25 footer, increased the lead to 54-31 with 14:52 to play.

The Johnnies were on fire, particularly Marvin Clark, on his way to a 22 point effort. The ball was moving, the Johnnies were scoring, and the defense was still stifling the Golden Eagles.

During the 7:45 timeout the St. John’s Dance Team came out on the floor and performed a riveting “weave performance” which received a loud ovation. A female fan stated “the dance team’s weave dance is as impressive as the basketball team’s performance tonight.”

Dance team
Wendell Cruz

A few minutes later two Heron dunks, sandwiched around a Figueroa put back dunk had the crowd once again on its feet. Carnesecca Arena was rocking.

With one minute remaining Coach Mullin replaced the starters with the reserves and at the 20 second mark of the half Greg Williams Jr. hit a driving, scooping layup. After the game, a few fans called for more playing time for Williams.

Greg Williams with ALL of the bench points for St. John’s vs Marquette
Wendell Cruz

The 89-69 victory left a clear impression that “this would be our year”. The devastating loss three days ago was history and the future to most appeared to be bright; though it is still early in the conference season.

Three Takeaways

The Johnnies win with defense which springs the offense

The Red Storm consistently picked up their defensive assignment 30 feet from the basket. Justin Simon blanketed Markus Howard making him work hard to even get the ball. When Howard worked around screens, the Johnnie defenders picked him & traded coverage, leaving him very few easy looks at the basket.

The Johnnies held the Golden Eagles to 29 percent on their three-point attempts as compared to the 39 percent they were shooting coming into the game.

The defensive effort also paid rewards initiating a fast break attack that led to high percentage shots, particularly in the second half. Coach Mullin was often seen motioning for the Red Storm, after taking a defensive rebound, to push the ball up the court and, for the most part, the aggressive play resulted in easy looks at the basket for the Johnnies.

The Johnnies avoided foul trouble even as they played aggressive defense

The Red Storm simply had too much lateral defensive speed for the Golden Eagles On both ends of the court this was obvious.

Mustapha Heron chases a loose ball
Wendell Cruz

The Johnnies only occasionally left a Golden Eagle open for a shot and the open threes from the corner, so prevalent in previous games, were almost nonexistent this game. There were not little pockets as players overlapped, no small gaps under screens. No air. Even Clark was able to stay with Markus Howard when switches left him with this assignment.

Equally impressive was the fact that the taller Eagles were not able to take advantage inside as the Seton Hall front court did three days before. The Eagles never really got untracked as the Johnnies foot speed kept them in front of their opponents.

Theo John misses a shot against Justin Simon and Marvin Clark’s defense
Wendell Cruz

Lastly and impressively, tonight there was no early foul trouble.

In contrast, the aggressive Johnnies were able to draw fouls and had several Golden Eagles in trouble midway through the second half.

Unforced turnovers, but only in the first half

The Johnnies had an eight minute period midway in the first half when the team made several mental errors resulting in turnovers. There were two traveling violations, when clear openings to the basket were for the taking. A questionable full length pass, sandwiched between two unsuccessful alley-oop passes left the crowd wondering what was going on with the team — and whether they were losing focus.

Wendell Cruz

Pushing the ball up court with crisp passing would bring the same results as an alley-oop (and there have been far too few successful attempts this season); and ballhandling is a skill all the players are capable of executing to efficient effect.

To the team’s credit, there was only two turnovers in the second half. The Golden Eagles took several minutes longer than the Johnnies to come out of the locker room for the second half but it was the Red Storm that seemed to make the more effective adjustments, which cut back on their turnovers, drew free throws, and increased the lead over Marquette.

Looking forward

Marquette came in ranked number 16th in one poll and 18th in another, with several impressive wins. One of its losses was to 5th ranked Kansas by nine points.

But after the game, Marquette Coach Wojciechowski felt that St. John’s is “one of the top twenty teams in the country. They’re every bit as good or better as anyone we have played so far.”

On to away games at Georgetown and Villanova.

The Wojciechowski assessment suggests a bright second half of the season for the Red Storm. The debacle at Seton Hall may have been a moment to make the point that every offensive possession and every defensive assignment requires ultimate concentration and teamwork.

It is a big “if” but, if the second teamers can develop enough of a game, particularly on defense, they can spell the starting five for a significant period of time.

The Johnnies took to heart that it was their errors, not a poor call by a referee, that contributed heavily to the Seton Hall loss. The result was one of their great victories in recent years.

That’s a good enough reason to be optimistic about the future for this veteran team.