After watching Albany Great Dane shooters drill jump shot after jump shot in warm-up drills one fan mentioned, “maybe this is a day our press will make a difference and take them out of their rhythm?”
Other fans were encouraged to see the injured Mustapha Heron on the sidelines in a warm-up jersey, though not participating. Despite the snow squalls outside, the arena was fairly filled, and a good crowd was at hand.
Who would step up into the vacuum created by Heron’s absence?
With Mustapha Heron out, sophomore David Caraher got the start along with Nick Rutherford, LJ Figueroa, Josh Roberts and Julian Champagnie.
Josh Roberts won the tip and the Johnnies moved the ball briskly to Figueroa, who missed an open step back three. Malachi de Sousa (who would lead the Great Danes in the game with 22 points) hit a three for a 3-0 Albany lead. De Sousa followed with a layup for a 5-0 lead before Champagnie, on an assist from Nick Rutherford, hit a corner three.
The cheerleaders and student section immediately responded with “defense … defense”. A Cameron Healy three at 17: 18 extended the Albany lead to 8-3 and it was noted that, to this point of the game, all Red Storm shots were jump shots, including several threes. No one was attacking the basket.
That was about to change.
The Red Storm began pressing full court after made baskets. The Johnnies were controlling the defensive boards and, when the press did not lead to a steal, it left the Great Danes rattled.
They did not score again for eleven minutes while the Red Storm ran off twenty-one unanswered points to lead 24-8. At first it was Champagnie, who scored nine of the points during the first four minutes of the run.
Two baskets by Marcellus Earlington and two by Rasheem Dunn contributed. Damien Sears got involved, stealing the ball at the twelve-minute mark, and feeding Nick Rutherford. Rutherford attacked the basket and found Earlington free for a dunk which extended the lead to 16-8.
Most impressive was the defense.
The Johnnies were simply quicker than the Great Danes with quick hands knocking the ball away as well as jumping into passing lanes, stealing the ball or knocking passes out of bounds causing the Great Danes to reset with little time to get into their offense.
The result was often rushed shots, leaving Albany little time to position themselves to attack the offensive glass when shots were missed. On one occasion, the press caused a back-court violation as, when Albany finally got the ball across the mid-court line, the Great Dane player, under pressure, stepped into his backcourt.
In the first 15 minutes of the half the Johnnies had nine assists to four for Albany and four blocks and four steals. It was truly a team effort and much of the run occurred while second teamers were in the game.
The run ended with a LJ Figueroa jumper, which made the score 24-8 at the 6:36 mark. When Romani Hansen made a layup to break the run, several cheers went up through the crowd, which were magnified when Ahmad Clark made a three pointer at 5:52.
There were many Albany fans present in Carnesecca Arena this evening. A 7-2 Albany run brought the score to 26-15 at 5:29. but the Red Storm went into the half with a comfortable 35-22 lead, with Figueroa blocking a Clark layup attempt as the half ended.
It was an impressive first half even though the Red Storm’s three-point shooting was an abysmal 23%. Heron was out and Figueroa was struggling, making two out of nine shots. What was clearly the reason for the lead was the fact that the Johnnies had five steals and six blocks in the first half with Champagnie leading the way with 12 points.
One young lady thought that “LJ was trying too hard to compensate for Heron being out.”
Other fans wondered if the Red Storm would be focused at the start of the half after a successful first 20 minutes; some games saw a flat and tepid Storm to start the final halves of games.
The starting lineup in the half was Figueroa, Dunn, Rutherford, Champagnie and Roberts. Rutherford and Figueroa were the guards and Dunn stationed himself as the right wing.
Figueroa immediately broke through his first half slump, hitting a three from the top of the circle for a 38-22 lead. St. John’s press forced an Albany turnover at 18:51 and a second turnover at 18:22. Josh Roberts was playing well, particularly on defense, but had opportunities in close on offense that he struggled with.
Earlington was doing his part taking down several offensive rebounds and putting them in the basket as he accumulated eight points in the first five minutes of the half. The Red Storm were struggling with their three-point shooting until Greg Williams got hot, hitting three long range shots in the middle of the second half.
An impressive sequence occurred at the 13 minute mark as Dunn drove towards the hoop, drawing the defense, and then dished to Caraher for a nice reverse layup extending the lead to 56-37. Later, Damien Sears hit a layup off an assist by Earlington then made a jumper at 11:00 to extend the lead to 63-39. The Johnnies were all contributing.
Most impressive were the three times the Red Storm defense was so tight that the Great Danes were called for 30 second violations.
In the last two minutes the two walk-ons, Justin Cole and Thomas O’Connell came in. A new fan asked, “why are the fans cheering for number 12?” A second fan responded “because he is a walk-on” and a brief discussion followed about the value of the walk-ons and how they push the lead players in practice.
“The Real Season is Starting this Saturday”
On the way out of Carnesecca Arena, one fan shared an opinion that “the real season is starting this Saturday.”
In one sense this is true as the competition becomes more challenging. Nevertheless, every game has its own dynamics and challenges. Albany led this game for five minutes. St. John’s was playing without their top scorer, Mustapha Heron, and second leading scorer, Figueroa, who, though contributing on defense and rebounding, was not shooting well.
Others had to step up and they did. It is important to note that it was not one or two that stepped up. It was the entire team.
The defense was stifling, registering 15 steals and 11 blocked shots.
In essence, the “real season” began for the second teamers against the Albany Great Danes. Heron was out and Figueroa was ineffective, and the second teamers led the way through much of the 21-point run in the first half that broke the game open.
The Full Court Press
Against Brown, the full court press was at times effective literally for both teams. It did bottle up the Bears at times. However, Brown had several players who were able to dribble through the press, which opened up opportunities of four on three defenders. Brown was quite good at taking advantage of these situations.
This was not repeated against Albany. The Great Danes were able to break through at times, but rarely did it lead to an easy opportunity; the Red Storm were quicker. Coupled with a style of play by Albany that was more controlled and deliberate, the Johnnies press clearly rattled the Great Danes.
Whether refinements were made to the full court press or not, this evening the players demonstrated an ability to press successfully against a team such as the Albany Great Danes.
Does St. John’s Have a Second Team?
Against Albany the “Second Team” sparkled. At times fans have talked about the “interchangeable parts” of which the team is made. Julian Champagnie once again demonstrated an ability to step forward offensively with 14 points on six for eight shooting in 21 minutes of play. He also took down six rebounds and has consistently throughout the season been a reliable rebounder.
Marcellus Earlington, in 18 minutes of play, scored 18 points on eight of ten shooting, took down nine rebounds, six of which were offensive, had two steals and two blocks.
Greg Williams played his usual stellar defense, scored 11 points including three for five on three pointers, had three rebounds and two steals.
Whenever Rasheem Dunn enters the game the pace speeds up, not just by Dunn alone but for the entire team. He is a weapon that Coach Anderson can use. In 22 minutes of play Dunn scored 10 points, had five assists and three rebounds.
The team had eight players, who were on the court between 18 and 28 minutes and all excelled. Clearly this team is not dependent upon the performance of one or two star players.
The crystal ball for many fans at the beginning of the season was to begin the Big East season with between eight and 10 wins. St. Johns has met expectations with 10 wins including a win over 25th ranked West Virginia. A game with 16th ranked Arizona comes up in two days to be followed with a home game against 17th ranked Butler on New Years Eve. The team has an opportunity to demonstrate that it truly is surpassing earlier expectations for the team.
Throughout the season several players have stepped up in various games. The most consistent ones have been Julian Champagnie and Rasheem Dunn. The expectations for Greg Williams continue to grow particularly with his three for five three-point shooting against Albany.
The ceiling for this team may not be clear until well into the Big East season and the contribution of Ian Steere is truly unclear. What we can say is that there is a ceiling higher than many imagined at the beginning of the season.