In warmups, fans received a glimpse of what was to come.
After a short layup drill, the Red Storm went into three-player weaves. The players rotated so that each player made an entry pass, then a pass off while driving to the hoop, then the third making the lay-up.
Ball movement is clearly being emphasized by new head coach, Mike Anderson.
Prior to the start of the game, one long-time season ticket holder shared his assessment, having observed a recent practice, saying, “it’s gonna be a long year. We have two studs, an improved Josh Roberts and several unknowns.”
At the practice, he observed Marcellus Earlington take a three-pointer early in the shot clock and Coach Anderson stopped play to advise that Earlington needed to be more disciplined and work the ball for a better shot. The fan concluded, “This coach is going to demand a disciplined effort.”
Starting for the Johnnies were Mustapha Heron, L.J. Figueroa, Josh Roberts, Nick Rutherford and freshman Julian Champagnie.
The game began with pressure defense by the Red Storm, paying off less than a minute into the game.
A steal by Josh Roberts fed to Nick Rutherford, who drove into the paint and hit a cutting Julian Champagnie for the first points of the game. By the 15:54 mark LJ Figueroa had scored nine of the team’s 15 points, mostly on drives to the basket initiated by defensive steals and pressure.
Freshman Champagnie had four points and grad transfer Rutherford two assists. The “unknowns” were clearly contributing.
There were concerns. Mercer was attacking the boards and taking down offensive rebounds leading to second chance points. The Johnnies may have been successful pressuring the Bears on some possessions; but when the pressure failed, it left the Johnnies vulnerable and out of position to box out and take down defensive rebounds. The Bears had almost as many offensive rebounds as the Johnnies had defense boards.
Still, at the 16 minute mark of the first half, the Johnnies were converting 75% of their field goal attempts to 25% for Mercer and held a 15-6 lead.
With Coach Anderson substituting freely throughout the game and all nine scholarship players logged in double-digit minutes except for Damien Sears, who was saddled with foul trouble. Sophomore Marcellus Earlington entered the game at the 15 minute mark and immediately grabbed an offensive rebound and put it back for the first of his 17 points.
The Johnnies led 17-9 at the 14:30 mark before Mustapha Heron scored his first points. His dry spell being over, Heron then scored 14 of the next 23 points for the Johnnies demonstrating a reliable three-point shooting for the Red Storm. The team went ahead by 22 points, 42- 20, at the 7:31 mark.
As the Red Storm increased their lead, the fan from before reflected that, “it’s nonstop energy; fun to watch.” He noted that Earlington was doing his damage on drives to the basket. He took only two three-pointers in the game, making one off a nice feed from Rutherford.
Greg Williams and Damien Sears entered the game at the fourteen minute mark and immediately contributed. Williams fed Earlington for a lay-up and, at 13:11, Sears blocked a layup by 6’ 11” Maciej Bender of Mercer. Although being called for a foul, Sears’ block ignited a cheering Red Storm crowd and was the beginning of tough defense which he played during the time he was in the game.
David Caraher entered the game and, though tentative at first, played competitively. At one break in play, Mike Anderson called him aside and spoke personally to him. Afterwards, Caraher appeared more aggressive, scoring after taking down an offensive rebound at the 2:34 point of the first half. He finished the game scoring 12 points and taking down seven rebounds.
Julian Champagnie demonstrated his athleticism with a nice block of a James Glisson III drive – which led to a breakaway bucket for Earlington.
All nine Red Storm players were contributing. And the crowd did their part with chants of “defense … defense”, led by the student section.
With three minutes to play in the first half Rutherford was seen taking a leadership role speaking with Red Storm players on the court assuring that each knew his defensive assignments after a TV timeout.
The Johnnies led 59-38 at the half.
Fans were excited about the energy of the team on both offense and defense during intermission.
The most telling statistic at the half was 15 turnovers for Mercer and only four for St. John’s. “We play fast and do not give up the ball with sloppy play,” one fan happily summarized. Another expressed concern over the open three pointers, which Mercer began to convert towards the end of the half.
The crowd tried to energize the Johnnies with chants of “Defense … defense” as Mercer took the ball out at the beginning of the second half.
However, James Glisson III of Mercer hit a jumper to start the half off. Josh Roberts brought “oohs” from the crowd with a block of a Bafutto jumper at the 18:00 minute mark, but a three-pointer by the Bears leading scorer, Ethan Stair, dropped the deficit to sixteen at 61-45. St. John’s called timeout.
A nice sequence at 15:46 found Heron taking a rebound and feeding a streaking Rutherford. Driving into the paint, Rutherford found an open Figueroa in the corner, who hit a three for a 66-45 lead.
After a Stair jumper, which made the score 66-47, and an official time out, Coach Anderson called an out of bounds play in which Heron broke around a screen, set at the top of the key, to receive a pass for an open three and a 68-47 lead.
In the next two minutes Rutherford blocked a Mercer layup and fed Heron for a drive on which he was fouled; next, he fed Earlington for an open three and a 72-50 lead. Rutherford clearly demonstrated his value to the Red Storm as a facilitator for his teammates.
Walk on Justin Cole came into the game at the 11:22 mark with the Johnnies comfortably ahead. He did not score but contributed with his defense, as did fellow walk on Thomas O’Connell, who came into the game several minutes later.
The Red Storm maintained a comfortable lead with Nick Rutherford putting the squad into triple digits with a three-pointer from the top of the key with three and a half minutes to play. It was an impressive final score of 109-79.
Speed on Offense, Pressure on Defense
There was a reason why eight of the nine scholarship players played eighteen minutes or more of basketball last night, a reason which goes beyond the score of the game. The Johnnies played an all-out, up-tempo game not seen for a long time at Carnesecca Arena.
Mustapha Heron said that it was fun playing the Anderson’s up-tempo game plan and recalled how difficult it was to play against it in the past, while on the Auburn Tiger team.
The Red Storm never let up. Reports that the team was in excellent physical shape were supported by the team’s performance. The 2019 Johnnies never had a concern with the shot clock on the offensive end. Yet there was plenty of energy left to challenge the Mercer Bears defensively, which led to turnovers and many easy lay-ups.
Can the Johnnies be as successful with an up-tempo game against more challenging opponents?
The pressure defense caused many turnovers and led to opportunities for easy layups for the Johnnies. However, it also led to open three-point looks as the game.
When the pressure was broken down, the Bears were able to find open teammates for three point shots which they made, keeping the score within a bearable difference. The Johnnies will benefit from reviewing the assignments on defense, when double teaming, to cut down on these open three-point opportunities for opponents.
Hopefully, continual review of the team’s performance and repetition will identify breakdowns so that these lapses will be less frequent as the schedule gets tougher.
Fans were aware of the skills of Mustapha Heron and LJ Figueroa and they both performed to expectation. With an injury to freshman point guard, John McGriff, and the controversy over the eligibility of guard Rasheem Dunn, Coach Anderson called on Nick Rutherford to step forward and he did.
His stat line of 14 points on 60 percent shooting was unexpected. In addition, Rutherford had eight assists, three rebounds, three steals and a blocked shot for his debut as a Johnnie. A welcome start for the grad transfer who also played “in your face defense” pressuring Mercer guards.
An impressive win for the Red Storm, which must be taken in context of opposing a Mercer team, which did not have one of their top players, senior Ross Cummings, performing.
The performance of the newcomers, particularly Rutherford and Champagnie, was impressive, as was the play of sophomores Josh Roberts and Marcellus Earlington. Earlington’s ability to attack the basket could pay dividends as he perfects his offensive skills.
The team’s up-tempo attacking style drew many fouls from Mercer, while the Red Storm were ale to stay out of foul trouble, despite the pressing defense (Sears excepted).