Riding the Long Island Railroad to see a St. John’s game — this season’s first at the Garden — can be stimulating when a group of fans who do not know each other find themselves seated in the same car.
Wearing my St. John’s hat opened the door to conversation, obviously.
Optimistic points were shared about the Red Storm season and particularly the Butler game. Fans pointed to a second straight strong game from Mustapha Heron and the coming out of Sedee Keita as a contributor as things St. John’s could rally around.
Fans also noted a similarity with the away game at Villanova. It was not so much the way the game evolved, but the fact that both Villanova and Butler run disciplined offenses which moved the ball quickly from side to side causing Johnny defenders to switch constantly. One fan noted that “Keita was often outside chasing Kamar Baldwin 20 feet from the basket.”
To another, Georgetown presented a different challenge, with 6’11” Jessie Govan, who was more likely to plant himself under the basket but could still hit the three.
Another fan said simply, “we hit a high percentage of our three pointers, we win.”
Upon arriving at the Garden, it was noted that the Johnnies were not hitting threes during warmups, but a good-sized crowd was filtering in, and it was only the warm ups.
It was an ominous first minute of play. The Hoyas won the tip and fans immediately began with “defense!... defense!” A Georgetown miss led to chants of “Let’s Go Johnnies.” Marvin Clark II missed a jumper and, at the one minute mark, 6’11” Jessie Govan hit a three for a 3-0 Hoya lead.
The next minute was the Marvin Clark show as he hit a three-pointer assisted by Justin Simon then hit a driving lay up after a Shamorie Ponds’ feed from the top of the circle. Clark was fouled and hit his free throw for a 6-3 Red Storm lead at 18:01.
The lead lasted for thirty seconds when Mac McClung of Georgetown hit a three-pointer for the Hoyas. St. John’s fans were unfamiliar with McClung, but they would get to know his name well — he ended as the game-high scorer with 25 points.
At 16:59, LJ Figueroa put back a Clark miss and the Red Storm were back ahead 8-6.
The lead jostled back and forth for the next three minutes; a Ponds layup at 14:10 put the Johnnies back ahead, 16-15.
But things were not comfortable. While the Red Storm offense was producing, the Hoyas were hitting at an 80% rate on their three point attempts. The defense needed to tighten up even though one fan was confident that “the law of averages says they will start missing.”
Bryan Trimble Jr. and Greg Williams Jr. entered the game at the 13:15 mark and added good defensive pressure led to a Hoya turnover.
The Hoyas began their surge ahead. Behind McClung’s 10 points they led 22-18 at the 11:19 mark. A 6-0 run put the Johnnies back in front, finished off by a Simon driving layup. The fans came back into the game, but the Hoyas’ torrid three-point shooting had cooled off only a bit.
Sedee Keita entered the game and bottled up a driving Govan, resulting in a turnover. The next possession, a Ponds drive and kick out to Simon in the right corner, was perfectly executed, but went for naught as Simon missed the jumper.
A Govan layup at 8:04 put the Hoyas in the lead by two. The remainder of the half became a game of the Hoyas stretching the lead to six points and the Red Storm fighting back but never into the lead.
Things were looking up for the Johnnies when Simon backed his defender in to the basket then hit Clark for a wide open three from the right wing at the one minute mark. The Hoya lead was down to three, 40-37.
The Johnnies thwarted the Hoyas on their next possession and Simon dribbled up the floor taking time off the clock to have the Johnnies take the last shot of the half.
But McClung stole the ball from Simon at mid-court with a quick poke and drove in for a lay up. He was fouled and hit one of two shots ending the half with 13 points. Red Storm fans may not have known him at the beginning of the game but they knew him now.
As the second half approached fans looked to the scoreboard. The Johnnies were being outshot on field goal attempts and on three pointers. One seasoned fan summarized, “We need to pressure McClung and possibly pick up the tempo in the second half. We can do this.”
As the second half began the Johnnies seemed ready to make a comeback.
A Figueroa three at 19:10 dropped the Hoya lead to 41-40.
Then Figueroa stole the ball and hit a driving Heron for a layup and the Johnnies regained the lead 42-41 at 18:12.
Fans in the Garden came alive with chants of “defense… defense.”
But the lead lasted only for 12 seconds as Govan was fouled. He hit his first free throw and missed his second, but the Hoyas rebounded the miss. A quick pass to Govan and he hit a three for a total of a four point play in one possession, and a Hoya lead, 45-42.
Shortly afterwards, Bryan Trimble Jr. stole a Hoya pass and fed Mustapha Heron for an open three which he missed.
Georgetown quickly brought the ball down court and hit an open Jagan Mosely for a corner three and a 10 point lead, 60-50, at 13:01.
There was a lot of time left, but the Hoyas were still hitting their shots, and the Johnnies appeared to be reeling. What was keeping them in the game was the turnover ratio clearly in favor of the Johnnies.
Georgetown went into a full court press which Justin Simon broke through. Although he missed the layup, Sedee Keita followed the play and put the miss back in. Simon hit a free throw 30 seconds later and a Ponds layup at 11:21 cut the lead in half.
The game jockeyed back and forth until Govan hit a layup with 8:48 to play. Coach Mullin called the team’s last time out of the half. Would there be a need for one at the end of the game, should the Johnnies have one more surge left in them?
The Hoya lead was nine after another McClung three pointer at 6:07. But the Johnnies did have a comeback ahead.
Clark hit two free throws. Heron made a layup. Ponds made two free throws and Keita, on a nice feed from Ponds, made a layup and the Johnnies were down by three with four minutes to play. It was anyone’s game.
The Hoya lead surged to six at the 2:08 mark but the next minute was all Johnnies. Two Ponds free throws dropped the lead to four and four seconds later a Ponds layup was goaltended, making the score 79-77 Hoyas.
The crowd was excited. On the Hoya inbounds play, Ponds stole the ball, but while on his back, he flipped a no-look pass to where Justin Simon was — but the pass bounced off of Simon’s shin.
On the Hoyas’ next inbounds play, Greg Malinowski got the ball in to Govan, got the ball back and across the half court line, but was trapped on the side. He threw the ball to try and find a teammate — and St. John’s LJ Figueroa got the steal!
The team had no time outs to set up a play, but it LJ Figueroa’s three with 29 seconds left on the shot clock was still a hasty shot, even if James Akinjo was two long steps from defensive position.
But Sedee Keita was there for the putback — and he missed!
And Justin Simon was there for the next putback — and he missed!
And Figueroa and Heron were there for another chance at the putback! — and they missed!
With at least three Johnnies getting up off the floor after the scrum, Jessie Govan passed up to Mac McClung, trailed by three other Hoyas who boxed out Mustapha Heron while McClung took off and threw down a two-handed dunk.
Georgetown hit its free throws to pull away with a 89-78 win, a final score that did not represent the competitiveness of the game.
“We hit a high percentage of three pointers, we win,” said a fan before the game.
The Johnnies made 7 of 26 three point attempts, or 27%, of their threes.
In a conference like the Big East, and without a low-post presence, that percentage will not win games.
Was it tight defense by the Hoyas that led to the low percentage?
Possibly. Drives by Johnnies, in particular Ponds, did not always resulting in open threes on kick outs.
However, it is noted that in warm ups at the beginning of the game many of the Red Storm shooters were simply not hitting their practice shots.
Was it just one of those games? Earlier in the year Marvin Clark, after some poor shooting games, was seem taking extra shooting practice after a game. The next game and for some time thereafter he shot better. Is extra shooting practice needed? Is being rusty after an eight day layoff the explanation?
Nine steals to the Hoyas’ three
The Johnnies quickness kept them in the game.
In addition to the plus six in steals, the Johnnies defense pressed the Hoyas into 19 turnovers while the Red Storm only had nine. The pressure gave the Johnnies two chances to tie the score in the last two minutes.
Missed layups at the end stand out, but there were missed layups throughout the game.
The giveaway by Simon with 15 seconds to play in the first half not only added to the Hoya lead but took away from a legitimate chance for the Johnnies to go into the second half tied or down by one.
That gaffe was as significant as the missed layups at the end.
The Johnnies did enough good things to win. They just didn’t.
Do they still believe?
Red Storm players described this game as a must win.
Some things good happened.
The Hoyas torrid three point shooting in the first half did drop. After starting the game hitting five of the first six, midway through the first half, the Hoyas shot eight for 21 (38 %) thereafter.
What really hurt the Johnnies was that many of these late three pointers came just after the Johnnies made a run to close the gap. The three by Govan after he missed the second of two free throws really hurt.
The Johnnies won the turnover battle by 10.
In most games with simply average shooting, that turnover margin should win games.
This is not wishful thinking; the fans should believe that they can still win, and so should the team. Even the most uncertain of fans does not expect this team to continue to shoot 27 percent on threes.
Creighton is an away, winnable game. The Johnnies won handily at home against the Blue Jays on January 18th last year.
Duke is challenging and, with the Johnnies recent struggles, the Red Storm should have no pressure on them in this game.
Then onto Marquette, a team the Red Storm handily beat on New Year’s Day.
All of the losses this season were winnable contests. Better shooting from three point range would have made the difference today. Fans need to believe to help the Johnnies continue to believe.