Fans entered Carnesecca Arena optimistic about the Red Storm, referencing the signs shown in the performance of the team during the Massachusetts game in the Hall of Fame tournament.
However, some concerns were expressed, particularly about the recent shooting slump of Mustapha Heron. Fans hoped that the game against Wagner would find him coming out strong.
Heron would not disappoint in the Red Storm’s win.
It did not take long for the Red Storm to give a sample of what was to come in their contest with the Wagner Seahawks.
Eleven seconds into the first half, Mustapha Heron hit a cutting Julian Champagnie for a driving layup from the right for a 2-0 lead. Wagner’s Patrick Szpir hit a jumper to tie the score at two, but then it became the Mustapha Heron show.
Heron hit a driving layup, assisted by Nick Rutherford, and picked up the foul on the drive. He made the foul shot and the Johnnies were up 5-2. They never looked back.
Heron made a three from the left wing at 18:23, assisted Josh Roberts on a jumper at 16:22 and made a layup a minute later. In the first four and a half minutes of the half, Heron scored eight points and assisted on two of the Johnnies other three buckets on the way to a 14-8 lead.
Yes, Heron was out of his slump in more ways than simply scoring.
Rasheem Dunn entered the game around the 14-minute mark and hit a three for a 17-8 lead. He later initiated a nice play, bringing the ball up and feeding Roberts at the top of the key.
Roberts turned and hit a slashing Marcellus Earlington who was fouled on a layup attempt. Like Heron, and the St. John’s squad, they took advantage of the Seahawks’ attempts at tight defense to draw fouls and opportunities at the rim.
Earlington made one of two free throws for an 18-8 lead. The Johnnies were impressively moving the ball around on offense. Dunn finished the first half with 10 points — the Johnnies’ second leading scorer behind Heron, who had 11.
LJ Figueroa did not score in the first half but impressed with his passing and rebounding. Twice, first to Heron then later to Rutherford, he drove into the paint and dished off to teammate, uncovered in the corner, for successful three-pointers.
The Red Storm went on a 13-0 run from the 8:17 mark to just under three minutes left in the half.
Five different Johnnies scored, with two assists by Figueroa and one each by Rutherford and Dunn. In the first half, the Johnnies had 11 assists on 17 baskets. They forced 13 Seahawk turnovers to four of their own and held their own on rebounds at 17 apiece, and led 43-19.
Julian Champagnie continued the Red Storm energy in a 6-0 run to start the half.
But shortly afterwards, Heron picked up his third and fourth foul, 14 seconds apart, and had to come out of the game. He would not return for 11 minutes, but the Red Storm were rolling. Shortly thereafter, Josh Roberts tipped in a Figueroa miss at 17:35 for a 50-23 lead. Roberts was on his way to scoring 12 points with nine rebounds and two assists in 29 minutes of play.
Wagner went on a 9-2 run and Coach Anderson called timeout at 15:21 with the Red Storm lead reduced to twenty, 52-32. A minute later Greg Williams scored on a nice backdoor feed from David Caraher.
Marcellus Earlington carried the team with eight points from the 13-minute mark of the half onward. The lead pulsed back and forth between a comfortable 19 and 26 points for the rest of the game with the Johnnies ending with a 86 to 63 victory.
Mustapha Heron is back
Prior to the game fans were concerned about Heron’s offensive output, in particular his three-point shooting.
Heron was his old self today hitting 7/11 shots with 3/6 from beyond the three-point line. He also had three assists and seemed to be making better choices when the ball was in his hands. All of this offense came in just 16 minutes of play as his time on the court was impacted after gathering his third and fourth foul early in the second half.
Heron impressed after sitting out for 11 minutes in the second half. Stepping right into the flow of the game, he responded immediately. Within a minute of his return to action, he nailed a three and then, 50 seconds later, hit a layup. On the Johnnies’ next possession, Heron set up Josh Roberts for an easy layup and a 73-48 Johnnies lead.
Learning the system
Experienced head coaches with a distinctive style have systems on both offense and defense that players need to learn. Just as players need to learn the coach’s system, coaches need to modify their systems to their player’s abilities. Much can be accomplished in practice but it is the competition of games that identifies where fine tuning is needed.
It was not long ago that the Johnnies registered just six assists in a loss to Vermont. This afternoon the number of assists was 23. Four different Johnnies had three or more assists and all scholarship players, except for Damien Sears, had at least one assist. LJ Figueroa, having a down day shooting with six points, led the team with six assists.
What was truly impressive was the nature of the assists. Passes into Roberts or Champagnie at the top of the post were quickly redistributed to teammates cutting to the basket. Other Johnnies made even longer passes from the top of the key to teammates cutting towards the basket for easy layups or short jumpers. The fact that assists came from many different players suggests that the offensive system is being mastered by the entire squad.
The Seahawks committed 21 turnovers to 14 by St. John’s. Both teams used a full court press at times during the game. Though the Red Storm and the Seahawks were able to break through the press fairly quickly, the Seahawks seemed more disorganized when entering the front court even though there was adequate time on the shot clock to run a play.
The Johnnies press had a more subtle impact. After spending effort breaking through the press, the Seahawks often became careless as they moved into their half-court offense. In contrast, the Johnnies, more often than not, were able to quickly assemble into their defensive responsibilities.
During one sequence Earlington moved towards mid-court to double a Seahawk attacker. He was a half second too late as he left his man free to receive a pass from the Seahawk ball handler.
Josh Roberts did a nice job picking up Earlington’s man as he attacked the basket but Roberts’ own man was now free to eventually receive a pass under the basket and score. The decision making of when to double was erroneous but it did force Seahawk players to make several perfect passes before a shooter was free. Twenty-one times during the game the Johnnies pressure had a different result.
In reality, Wagner is not as skilled as future opponents in the Big East as well as Arizona and West Virginia will be. More talented squads will probably not rattle as easily. However, the ability of the team to move into different sets on offense and to not leave too many open shooters on defense, while still providing pressure to create turnovers, is a positive step forward.
Who is the third option after Figueroa and Heron
At the beginning of the game two names surfaced among fans: Rasheem Dunn and Julian Champagnie. Each were mentioned as the third option by one fan.
But most fans felt the third option would be a different Johnnie each game.
Looking at not only scoring but all aspects of the game, Josh Roberts comes to mind for his performance against Wagner. He rebounded well and covered on defense, as he usually does, but today also had 12 points on six for seven shooting. Julian Champagnie also scored 12 points on a respectable five for eight shooting.
Rasheen Dunn demonstrated bursts of energy towards the basket which often drew fouls, on the way to 14 points.
Marcellus Earlington attacked the basket repeatedly, drawing fouls, on the way to nine points. If he was more accurate with his free throw shooting, he also would have been in double figures.
The team looks as if it is coming together, though the opponent was not as high quality as some of the recent foes. The Red Storm outplayed Wagner in all aspects of the game. With so many Johnnies assisting each other, the shooting percentage was just under fifty percent for the team.
Another game to work on fundamentals is coming against Saint Peter’s. Then comes a game against West Virginia, a quality opponent, with an opportunity to show that the second half performance against Arizona State was a fluke.
It looks like the team believes in itself. It demonstrated improvement. How much improvement will they show before their next big test?