The parking lot and the stands looked empty 30 minutes before the Central Connecticut/St. John’s basketball game; but it did not take long for an optimistic crowd to arrive by the 4:00 PM start-up.
Encouraged by the ball movement and pressing defense evident in the win over Mercer earlier in the week, fans expected more of the same.
One emphasized the need for more depth, and asked about the likelihood that the two currently ineligible transfers would join the team. He was particularly upset that Rasheem Dunn may have to sit out another year. The fan, livid about unfairness on the part of the NCAA, was redirected by other fans to the impressive win over Mercer for a dose of hope.
[See game recap, as well]
The starting lineup was, once again, Mustapha Heron, L.J. Figueroa, Nick Rutherford, Josh Roberts and Julian Champagnie.
Two offensive rebounds by Josh Roberts in the first 30 seconds of the game resulted in a three by Mustapha Heron to open up an early St. John’s lead. After a jumper by Junior Coleman of the Blue Devils, Julian Champagnie assisted on a second Heron jumper and followed by blocking a Blue Devil shot.
Nick Rutherford pushed the ball up the court after a turnover, and hit Heron, who pulled up for a deep transition shot for his third three pointer and a score of Mustapha Heron 9, Central Connecticut 3.
LJ Figueroa joined the offensive effort. A Johnnies’ double team caused a Blue Devil miss, then Josh Roberts took down the rebound and fed a driving Figueroa for his first points of the game. Then at 15:30 Figueroa drove into the paint and found an open Heron in the right corner. Heron connected, his eleventh point in the first five minutes, for a 13-4 lead.
At the first Media timeout, St. John’s was hitting their field goals at a 63% clip while Central Connecticut was converting 22% of their tries.
Greg Williams Jr. and Marcellus Earlington entered the game after the timeout. A five point run by the Blue Devils closed the gap to 13-9 before Earlington grabbed an offensive rebound and laid it in.
Damien Sears and David Caraher entered the game at the twelve minute mark and Spears responded with a nice spin move, laying the ball in for a 17-10 lead.
Over the next two minutes the Blue Devils scored eight straight points to take a one point lead 18-17. The combo of Figueroa and Heron stepped up. Figueroa hit Heron for a layup plus one.
Chants of “defense” erupted from the student section, and the crowd was rewarded with a Champagnie block and a Josh Roberts put back of a Rutherford miss for a 22-18 Red Storm lead.
Central Connecticut continued to attack the basket with drives deep into the paint. The Johnnies response was equally impressive as the Red Storm front court, particularly Sears and Roberts, would switch to thwart the Blue Devil’s efforts.
Champagnie and Figueroa played significant roles in pulling down Blue Devil misses. By the end of the half, the Red Storm held a 23-21 lead in rebounding to go along with a score of 39-33.
Highlights of the first half:
- Mustapha Heron scoring 19 points and consistently hitting his three point attempts.
- Josh Roberts had a great half rebounding and playing defense.
- Julian Champagnie made a nice turnaround jumper and took down five rebounds with two blocked shots.
Fans, remembering the slow start by the Johnnies in the second half of the Mercer game, felt that Coach Anderson would remind the team of that and that they would be ready.
The Johnnies were very ready.
After Jamir Coleman hit a three to cut the deficit to 39-36, the Red Storm ran off twenty straight points as the Blue Devils did not score for five minutes.
Champagnie hit two layups at the start of the run. Heron stole an inbounds pass at mid-court and drove down for a dunk. Figueroa went 3/3 on three-point shots. The run ended with a Campagnie steal leading to a dunk. With fifteen minutes left to play the Johnnies led 59-36.
With a significant lead Coach Anderson rotated all the scholarship players throughout the remainder of the half. The Johnnies challenged Blue Devil drivers, closed spaces to limit Blue Devil threes and deflected balls.
In one sequence Spears deflected a pass to Figueroa, who hit a driving Williams for a dunk and a 61-37 lead. Then, after a Blue Devil miss, Figueroa hit a driving Sears for an easy lay-up and a 26 point lead, 63-39.
With the Red Storm comfortably ahead at 73-46, the team continued to play aggressive defense with Josh Roberts blocking Blue Devil shots in two successive possessions. In the first 20 minutes of play the Red Storm had two steals. In the next 15 minutes they added five more — and held the Blue Devils to only 24 points in the second half.
Heron, Figueroa, and...?
Mustapha Heron and LJ Figueroa continued to star on the team. Heron hit 10/15 shots and scored 30 points, shooting 6/7 on his three-point attempts. He had three assists and looked to set up his teammates every time he brought the ball up court.
Figueroa’s shooting struggled a bit in the first half but picked up, along with the entire team, in the second half. He scored 17 points on 6/16 shooting. Of those six baskets were five three-pointers. Figueroa also had six assists and took down six rebounds, clearing the defensive boards.
The stars on the team both came through tonight. Their unselfish play seems to bring out the best in their teammates.
However, there is a concern. The two stars hit 11/17 three-point shots while the rest of the team went 0/11. Which other players will step up from outside?
Success breeds Confidence
It is early in the season and the competition is not as skilled as the competition to come. Coach Anderson has said “we have to use this non-conference schedule to develop some depth.”
Julian Champagnie, Damien Sears and Josh Roberts stepped up.
They played defense, blocked shots and took down rebounds. In the first half, Roberts had a couple of put backs after offensive rebounds.
Champagnie’s game came alive in the second half and he finished with a stat line of ten points and eight rebounds on five for eleven shooting.
Perhaps most impressive was the performance of Damien Spears, who took down 11 rebounds in 14 minutes of play and shot 4/8.
A game of runs
In the first half St. John’s, riding the hot shooting of Mustapha Heron, jumped out to a 13-4 lead.
Four minutes later Central Connecticut moved into a zone defense and took the lead outscoring the Johnnies 8-0 over a two minute period.
During the dry period the Johnnies did not turn the ball over but struggled with their attack against the zone, missing jump shots and free throws. A Heron layup, assisted by Figueroa, ended the drought. The stars stepped up.
After the Blue Devils closed the deficit to three points at the beginning of the second half, the Red Storm went on a 20-0 run over a five minute period.
The Blue Demons committed five turnovers, missed two jumpers and two three-point attempts. The Johnnies not only shut down the Blue Devil drives to the basket, they scored 11 points on fast breaks after causing turnovers.
It was clear that focused defense — and fast-break counterattacking — is an important catalyst for efficient offense for the Red Storm. Can the weather the runs where they are not forcing turnovers?
St. John’s is making progress integrating Sears, Campagnie and Roberts into the game plan during these early games. Rutherford played a steady game, completing tough passes against pressure to keep the ball moving. With Heron and Figueroa playing up to their billing the potential is in place.
There is hope that David Caraher will find his comfort level on the team and provide the scoring punch he looks capable of delivering, and that the two transfers will soon find themselves eligible.
If accomplished, the team will be deep, which will be needed in Coach Anderson’s aggressive style of play.