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Three takeaways: St. John’s interchangeable parts defeat Columbia

Caraher, Dunn and Earlington off bench contribute, team shares the ball

Julian Champagnie on the break
Wendell Cruz

One season ticket holder, who has kept the faith since 1975, shared that he likes what he sees from St. John’s this year despite the Vermont loss.

Optimism continues to reign amongst the fan base, buoyed by Vermont’s most recent result, a close loss to an elite Virginia on November 19th that indicated that Vermont is truly a competitive team. Fans did share one specific concern, the play of Greg Williams Jr., hoping that he would become more assertive on offense as the Johnnies took on the Columbia Lions on Wednesday evening.

First half

The team was ready, applying stifling defense from the start. Nick Rutherford was blanketing Columbia’s top scorer, Mike Smith, as he crossed the half court line. A layup by LJ Figueroa opened the scoring at the 18:50 mark of the half.

Julian Champagnie put the Red Storm ahead to stay with a layup at 16:49. The Red Storm followed with a 9-0 run over the next four and a half minutes to increase the lead to 15-4. Four different Johnnies including Figueroa, Champagnie, and, off the bench, Marcellus Earlington and Rasheem Dunn, scored in this run.

Greg Williams dribbles upcourt
Wendell Cruz

Around the 14:30 mark, Greg Williams entered the game; shortly afterwards, he drove aggressively to the basket. Though missing the layup, he pulled Lions defenders toward him and opened a lane for Champagnie to take the offense rebound and get fouled.

Josh Roberts made a nice defensive play, showing his speed and range on the court. He assisted in doubling Mike Smith as Smith passed across the mid court line. Smith gave the ball up and Roberts hustled back to his position in the paint where he intercepted a Lion pass seconds later.

In the first eight minutes, strong defense by first Rutherford and then Williams, with help from Roberts, held Smith to three points with no assists. As the game continued Smith demonstrated his skill, ending with an impressive line of 20 points, nine rebounds and six assists.

The Johnnies led by Dunn expanded the lead to 25-8 at 9:48 of the half. As they extended the lead, Williams assisted David Caraher, who nailed a three from the left wing. One fan commented that the Johnnies first and second teams were “interchangeable”, everyone effectively supporting each other.

Caraher and Figueroa
Wendell Cruz

At the under-8 timeout, the Johnnies were dominating —outrebounding the Lions 15 to nine and outshooting them 48% to 33%.

Caraher and Dunn played stepped up, scoring four points each in the last two minutes of the half as the Johnnies went into half time, leading 49-27.

Second Half

One fan reiterated his hope to see Greg Williams become more aggressive when the Johnnies had the ball. For a brief time in the second half the fan would be rewarded.

The Lions began the second half aggressively easily getting open shots and the Johnnies lead dropped to 53-38. Smith either scored or assisted on all but two of Columbia’s points.

Columbia’s Mike Smith goes to the basket for two in traffic
Wendell Cruz

Coach Anderson called timeout.

The Red Storm defense tightened and the next two and a half minutes of the game became the Julian Champagnie show. The freshman scored nine straight points on a combination of layups, jump shots and a twenty-foot three from the left wing. St. John’s was up 62-38 with fifteen minutes to play.

A block by Roberts led to a breakout by Dunn, who fed Mustapha Heron for a three from the left corner.

A short time later Greg Williams, on an assist from Caraher, finally scored on a layup. He followed on the next possession with a three from the left wing and fans stood up in their seats and cheered what they hoped would be a breakout performance for the sophomore guard.

St. John’s led 70-40. Jake Killingsworth and Maka Ellis each hit two three-pointers in the closing eight minutes as the Lions fought back, but they never got closer than 20 points until a three by Killingsworth with a half minute to go resulted in the final score, 82-63.

Three Takeaways

Who will be the Third Option?

Marcellus Earlington works on the block
Wendell Cruz

Fans have asked this question since the first game of the season. Rasheem Dunn scored 13 points on 4/12 shooting against Vermont and, against Columbia, he scored 14 points on 4/11 shooting. Dunn brings energy and excitement to the offense, mostly on quick drives to the basket.

Julian Champagnie scored nine points against Vermont and 14 against Columbia on 6 for 13 shooting. Champagnie also took down seven rebounds. He has a nice jump shot that, hopefully, he will begin to hit on a more consistent basis.

David Caraher had a nice game, scoring nine points and taking down five rebounds in 18 minutes of playing time.

Perhaps the answer to the question: who will step forward as the third option to Mustapha Heron and LJ Figueroa is that it will be a different Johnnie or two every game. All three are capable of providing the needed option.

“They’re starting to understand how hard we need to play,” Mike Anderson said after the game. “They’re starting to understand that we’re not a two-man team.”

“They are Interchangeable Parts”

Mustapha Heron looks to score
Wendell Cruz

This observation rang quite true in the game against the Lions.

Coach Anderson substituted liberally. The same five players, who started the first four games started again but only Roberts and Heron played as many as 24 minutes. The four second team players averaged 17 minutes.

By the 14 minute mark of the first half the Johnnies were represented on the court by all second teamers, who played well.

Caraher and Williams were assisting each other at various times in the game and Earlington was his usual self with eight points and eight rebounds in 16 minutes of play. Half of his points came on offensive rebound put backs and half of his points on assists from Nick Rutherford.

The Red Storm registered 13 assists for the game compared to six in the Vermont loss. Five players had two assists and one (Dunn) had three. It was a team effort.

The Defense: “Don’t Let them Become Comfortable”

Josh Roberts lines up the block
Wendell Cruz

The Johnnies defense was splendid in the first 11 minutes of the game. Guards Rutherford, in particular, and Williams pressured Smith, holding him to two points. Double teams were used well, and all Johnnies appeared to know their defensive assignments. This effective defense was evident whether it was the first team or second team players on the court.

In the post-game conference Coach Anderson stated that “we cannot let opponents get comfortable”. The Johnnies certainly accomplished this goal at the beginning of the game.

In the second half, when Columbia had a brief run in the first three minutes, Coach Anderson called a timeout and the Johnnies responded on both offensive and defensive ends, leading to a 9-0 run.

While Columbia did make some threes towards the end of the game the shooting percentage over the past ten minutes remained an average 36%.

Outlook

The upcoming Hall of Fame Tip-off Tournament at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut are more chances to build the team against competitive opponents, chances to determine roles and what contributions players can make.

There were good moments from Caraher and Earlington from the second team again against Columbia. Dunn is bringing energy and offense and soon forward Ian Steere will join the team; any of these players could move up the rotation.

Given the field in the upcoming tournament (Arizona State, Virginia and Massachusetts) a one and one record over the two day tournament is a reasonable expectation as the team continues to build into a cohesive unit.