Several fans recognized that the day’s game against the veteran, NCAA Tournament-tested Vermont Catamounts was going to be challenging. As they filed into the seats for the 4:00 PM tip on the chilly fall afternoon, the fans asked the same two questions as the game began.
- Who will be the third option on offense for the Red Storm?
- Would Rasheem Dunn would get into the game today, now that he is eligible?
Dunn’s addition would add a third offensive option; as a scorer at St. Francis, he looks like the kind of player who could help take pressure off of the Red Storm’s stars.
Before 30 seconds had passed in the first half, LJ Figueroa hit a three and the Johnnies looked like they were off to a good start. They played a tight man defense without double teams. Julian Champagnie was assigned the task of guarding star player, Anthony Lamb of Vermont.
But after Figueroa’s three, both teams went over three minutes without scoring a point. Vermont was shooting deep threes, often open, and missing them and St. John’s was clearing the defensive boards. However, the Johnnies were equally cold.
With 16 minutes to play in the half, Lamb hit a jumper and the Catamounts were on the board.
After a bucket by Robin Duncan of Vermont, Josh Roberts put back a Figueroa miss, and the Johnnies were back in the lead. Despite facing a tall Vermont team Roberts was aggressive in pulling down rebounds and challenging shots.
St. John’s was aggressive in attacking after a steal or a missed basket by Vermont. But the Catamounts were equally conscientious about getting back and thwarting the Johnnies’ fast break efforts.
At the 13:58 timeout it was a low scoring contest, with Vermont leading 7-5. The Johnnies were shooting 20% while Vermont was not much better at 30%.
After the timeout the Johnnies brought out a lineup of Dunn, Marcellus Earlington, Roberts, Mustapha Heron and Greg Williams. It became the Earlington and Roberts show as the two sophomores became aggressive on defense and the offensive boards.
At 13:12 Earlington drove and missed a four foot turnaround, but Roberts grabbed the rebound and was fouled. On the inbounds play, Heron missed a driving layup attempt and this time it was Earlington’s time to take down a rebound and be fouled. The end result of all this effort was a free throw and a narrowed eight to six Vermont lead.
An Earlington basket at 12:01 and a jumper by Caraher at 10:45 reduced the Catamounts lead to 11-10 in what continued to be a low scoring first half. After Heron hit a free throw to tie the score, Vermont scored five in a row to increase the lead to 16-11.
A full court press by the Johnnies, instituted after made baskets, led to Vermont turnovers but the Johnnies struggled to capitalize.
At the three-minute mark, Dunn aggressively drove from the left wing and was fouled. He made the first shot... but missed the second. Josh Roberts pulled down the rebound and fed Dunn who was again fouled.
This time, he made both foul shots and the lead was reduced to one point, 21-20, with three minutes left in the half. The crowd became alive after most Red Storm baskets with chants of “Defense … defense”.
A Figueroa three at 1:45 and then a nice pass from Earlington to a driving Roberts drew a foul. This brought Roberts to the line with a chance to tie the score. He made the foul shot and the score was 26-26.
A St. John’s steal and a put back by Earlington put the Johnnies ahead at 40 seconds to play in the half. Then a Dunn jumper at the bell extended the lead to 31-26 at the half.
“That was a nice turnaround,” one fan said as the fans milled about the arena during halftime.
“The way we shot, we are lucky to be ahead,” another longtime fan stated.
Others agreed... and luck was about to run dry.
The Johnnies started the second half ahead.
Once again both teams were off from the field at the beginning of the half.
A pass across the top of the arc from Rutherford towards, but behind, Mustapha Heron bounced off of Heron’s hands, creating a golden opportunity for Catamount guard Stef Smith; he took advantage with a breakaway layup reducing the Red Storm lead to one, 32-31 at the 16:25 media timeout.
At this time out, St. John’s had only registered two assists. One positive: the Johnnies led the taller Catamounts in rebounds 34 to 28. It was a team effort as Roberts, Earlington, and Champagnie all had several rebounds.
Lamb began to get hot hitting an off-balanced two, and was fouled by Earlington. Shortly thereafter, left alone by the Johnnies, he hit an open three and suddenly the Johnnies' halftime lead of five had become a seven point deficit, just eight minutes into the half.
Vermont dropped into a zone and the Johnnies found a soft spot in it, feeding an open Champagnie for a fifteen foot turnaround jumper. Dunn then fed Champagnie for a drive on which he was fouled. Hitting the two foul shots, the Vermont lead was now one with 10:46 to play.
The game pulsed back and forth for several minutes. Every time the Johnnies seemed to make a run, either Lamb would make a basket or the Catamounts would find open shooters in the corners for successful three-point attempts.
With 1:34 to go the Johnnies found themselves down by seven.
A few fans began to leave.
But the Johnnies were not done fighting back. A Heron layup dropped the deficit to five with 41 seconds to go. At 0:37 Smith, who had scored 17 points, missed the front end of a one and one. Heron responded with a 24-foot jumper from the top of the key and the deficit was one.
The crowd responded in cheering and the Johnnies immediately fouled Everett Duncan. The elder Duncan brother on the Catamount roster calmly hit both free throws for a three-point lead.
Twenty eight seconds remained. Dunn, who had missed all three-point attempts earlier in the game, hit his first just left of the top of the circle with 19 seconds to play.
With the score tied at 68, Carnesecca Arena was erupting.
Good defense on the inbound pass by the Red Storm cornered a Catamount player who called time out with 10 seconds to play.
More good defense on the next inbound pass forced the Catamounts to call a second timeout as they were unable to inbound the ball.
However, a third defensive stand was not to be.
Anthony Lamb, who had already scored 21 points in the game, retrieved the inbounds pass (after the game, Coach Anderson said that Lamb was supposed to be double teamed by Dunn), dribbled to the right to take about five seconds off the clock, then drove across the paint hitting a turnaround with 2.4 seconds remaining on the clock.
The Johnnies last attempt to tie found Figueroa driving up court and stepping out of bounds just past mid court. Believing fans took the loss in a positive way, focusing on the comeback at the end and not the defeat, but the defeat was still bitter, given the chances St. John’s had in the game.
There are Turnovers and there are Turnovers
Turnovers are part of the game; even the best are not perfect. Some turnovers are caused by pressure defense. The pressure defense of St. John’s was responsible for causing most of the Catamount turnovers.
Then there are turnovers caused by careless offensive play. In the first half, Rutherford made a telegraphed pass in the backcourt towards Heron. An alert Stef Smith of Vermont read the pass and intercepted the pass, but couldn’t get the score.
In the second half, while nursing a six point lead, Rutherford made another telegraphed pass in the backcourt. An alert Stef Smith of Vermont read the pass, and took advantage when Heron couldn’t hold on the ball, and this time he drove the court for a break away layup.
Shortly thereafter a second Red Storm turnover resulted in a Lamb layup and suddenly the Red Storm lead was no more. Later in the half, a behind the back, no-look pass from Earlington to a space vacated by a cutting Heron thwarted an opportunity for the Johnnies to tie the score.
At other times there were turnovers caused by Johnnies driving into prepared groups of Catamounts. While being aggressive on the offense was often effective and drawing foul shot attempts, being overly aggressive was taking away shot opportunities. Reviewing the tape of the game should help players identify opportunities to attack and the times that the ball should be brought back out to reset.
Who is the Point Guard?
There were times during the game that the Red Storm clearly needed an offensive leader, a point guard.
Nick Rutherford started the game and played mostly uneventfully. He was replaced by reinstated guard Rasheem Dunn, who brought energy and an ability to draw fouls. He also tried to shoot from long distance unsuccessfully, except for the three-pointer with twenty seconds to go to tie the game. At times Dunn seemed to press too hard and left himself in positions on the court where he and the ball could not escape.
Greg Williams was the opposite of Dunn. He was tentative when in, not making any errors but not initiating much and never trying to attack the basket on his own.
The Red Storm were often disorganized, running weaves, while looking for an opportunity for a Johnnie to attack the rim. Vermont defenders would collapse, leaving Red Storm attackers trapped.
In the middle of the second half the Red Storm ran some successful sets with Julian Champagnie setting up at the foul line and hitting open turnaround jump shots. He has demonstrated the ability to hit the mid-range jumper.
During Dunn’s first game in almost two years, he began to make better choices on offense as the game wore on, scoring 13 points on 4/12 shooting and drawing many fouls on Vermont defenders.
The Red Storm had just six assists. Three of the assists were by the three point guards. In contrast, Vermont had 14 assists.
In the 2018-19 year the Red Storm almost always came up on the short end of the rebounding statistics. Not this year.
The Johnnies had 50 rebounds in the game to 37 for Vermont. Roberts had 13 rebounds in 29 minutes of play. Figueroa had ten in 33 minutes of play and Earlington had seven in 20 minutes. Champagnie was next with six rebounds in 25 minutes. It was a team effort.
Knowledgeable fans knew that Vermont had a tall, experienced team with a true star player in Anthony Lamb. The fact that the game came down to an end of game isolation with Lamb, well, Lamb did what star players do.
There is the question posed by many fans: who will provide a third offensive force to support the efforts of Heron and Figueroa. More specifically, Vermont had several players who could hit the open jumper, particularly from the corner. Who do the Johnnies have? Possibly David Caraher? Possibly Champagnie?
The team causes turnovers – a plus. But St. John’s also carelessly turns the ball over too much, even when defenses are not applying pressure. As the point guard situation becomes more clarified, these careless plays could decrease.
One of the weakness of last year’s team was rebounding and in these first four games of the season the team has outrebounded its opponents. The offensive rebounding of Roberts and Earlington brought the Johnnies into the lead at the end of the first half. That is a plus.
There appears to be camaraderie amongst the players, and leadership from senior Mustapha Heron has been seen. So, the outlook for a successful season remains. A game against Columbia, which the Johnnies should be able to win, and then a challenge in the Hall of Fame Tip-off tournament are on the horizon.
With Ian Steere joining the team in December there continues to be reason for optimism.