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Three takeaways: solid team defense, Heron leads, favorable matchups

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Johnnies found good matchups in win over Butler; Heron and Clark step up but rebounding deficiency remains.

Wendell Cruz

It was a snowy, wet day that, nevertheless, found an almost full house at Carnesecca Arena for a game with the Butler Bulldogs. Even though Butler had defeated the Red Storm in an earlier meeting, fans were cautiously optimistic.

Most fans felt that there was energy missing on February 9, 2019 against Providence, more than just not having Mustapha Heron. One fan wondered if the Red Storm took the Providence Friars too lightly.

One fan I spoke to said the key to this game was to establish an up tempo game from the start. Another said the key was to play Josh Roberts and to have the team take on the energy he brings to the game. A third summarized, “it’s all about energy —from the beginning of the game.”

If energy was an issue in the past, it was not last night as right from the first Bulldog possession the chant “defense… defense...” could be heard. In the small confines of Carnesecca Arena, the chants were loud and clear as compared to games at the Garden.

When St. John’s was on the offensive, the chants “Let’s Go Johnnies” were regularly heard — not as loudly as in the Marquette game, but bigger than the fan noise against Providence.

A fan conjures Hulkmania for Johnny Thunderbird
Wendell Cruz

The team must have heard as they got off to their best start in some time.

On their first offensive possession Marvin Clark II fed a cutting Shamorie Ponds, who drove to the basket then dished to a wide open Clark in the left corner for an early 3-0 lead.

Then Ponds showed off with a stutter step, drive and layup that brought “oos” and “aahs” from the crowd and a 5-0 lead. Thirty seconds later, Ponds hit a 25-foot three and the Johnnies led 8-3.

LJ Figueroa joined the party soon after, putting back a Justin Simon drive and later, passing to Mustapha Heron in the left corner for a three and a 13-3 St. John’s lead.

While the offensive explosion was taking place, Simon was guarding Bulldog star Kamar Baldwin and making him work every time he touched the ball.

When Baldwin freed himself on screens, other Johnnies smoothly switched to pick him up. The defense seemed ready, spurred on by the crowd and the urgency of their conference record.

At 14:39 Clark drove the baseline and dunked the ball. The scoreboard flashed “Make Some Noise” but was hardly needed. The crowd was energized.

Marvin Clark with the strong game
Wendell Cruz

At 12:59 Bryan Trimble Jr. and Josh Roberts entered the game. Two minutes later, Sedee Keita and Greg Williams Jr. entered the game. The Red Storm were using the bench early.

But a 7-0 Butler run showed that the Bulldogs were not going to go down easily.

At 8:42 the score was 22-14. Butler mixed up their defenses, switching from man to man then to zone and back to man to man. The Johnnies’ offense was cooling off. Butler was also crashing the offensive boards and getting second chance shots.

Paul Jorgensen hit three long jumpers for eight points, keeping Butler in the game while the Red Storm were throttling Baldwin and Justin Tucker, who exploded for a career-high earlier this season.

At the half, the Johnnies led 38-30. They had turned the Bulldogs over eight times to only three turnovers themselves. Butler was slightly outrebounding them overall 16-14. Field goal percentages were similar but the Johnnies were hitting on 44% of their threes to Butler’s 27%.

Early in the second half, Ponds hit a three from the top of the key, but Justin Tucker responded with two corner threes. The lead remained at eight, 46-38 at the 15:36 mark.

One anxious fan remarked, “Butler is hanging around.”

At the 14:34 mark, Heron drove the right baseline and then went under the basket for a nice layup. Shortly thereafter he grabbed a rebound and drove the length of the court for a layup and a 50-40 St. John’s lead.

Mustapha Heron with the strong drive
Wendell Cruz

Josh Roberts returned to the game and was the one Johnnie constantly on the offensive boards.

Still, Butler went on a 9-0 run the score was tied 51-51. Finally, Roberts’ efforts finally paid off as he grabbed a blocked Ponds shot and laid the ball in, putting the Johnnies back in the lead.

Josh Roberts eyes the ball as Shamorie Ponds tries to score around Butler’s Nate Fowler
Wendell Cruz

Clark, Figueroa and Heron all scored, increasing the lead to 62-56 at 5:50. Fans were on their feet cheering and the sound was the loudest of the year, except for the Marquette home game.

But the Bulldogs again pressed on.

Kamar Baldwin, despite having four fouls, attacked the basket and brought Butler back into the game.

The Bulldogs had never led in the game. But when Paul Jorgensen hit a layup with under twenty seconds left in the game, suddenly they were ahead. The Red Storm called time out with 12.1 left on the clock.

Coach Mullin called a play for Ponds to set up at the foul line for a pass and drive to the basket. Butler countered with a Bulldog following him around the court trying to deny him the ball.

The Bulldog defense almost worked but Ponds fought through the congestion, received a pass and drove to the hoop with Butler’s Aaron Thompson bumping him the whole way.

Ponds was fouled with four seconds to play.

He hit the first foul shot to tie the game... but missed the second.

The game went to overtime and Butler scored first. Heron took over hitting six of six free throws, which, when combined with a Figueroa steal and pass to Simon for a lay-up, put the Johnnies in the driver’s seat.

Jorgensen had a chance to tie the score with seconds to play but missed on a driving teardrop shot in the last seconds of overtime.

Bench celebrates
Wendell Cruz

Three Takeaways

Defensive intensity

When the Red Storm had their defense in place, rarely did Butler get off an undefended shot. Often the Bulldogs were shooting with under ten seconds on the shot clock.

While there were a couple of breakdowns – Joey Brunk broke free for undefended layups and Tucker found himself free twice for undefended threes from the wing — the intensity was there.

Baldwin was picked up by Justin Simon whenever Simon was in the game. He was held to six points on two of four shooting in the first half. When the second half reached crunch time, Baldwin looked for the ball and became aggressive driving. He ended up with 16 points but only shot at a 39% clip. In the January 19th game Baldwin had 30 points shooting at a 56% clip.

Marvin Clark defends the driving Kamar Baldwin
Wendell Cruz

Baldwin had to work for every shot he took and, because of his skills, scored his 16 points. Baldwin scores 17.2 points per game and hits on 44 percent of his field goal attempts. His 16 points, shooting at 39 percent, was below his season average.

There were times, particularly when Baldwin was out, that Butler worked and worked and never got a reasonable shot off due to the defensive intensity of the Red Storm.

Despite the brief moment when he hit two open corner threes near the beginning of the second half, Jordan Tucker was held in check. He scored eight points, far below the 24 he scored on January 19th.

Favorable matchups

If the Providence Friars height and strength created difficult match-ups for the Johnnies, the guard match-ups in the Butler game made the difference in the game.

On the offensive side, Mustapha Heron seemed to have his way attacking the Bulldog basket successfully, as none of the Bulldog defenders appeared able to stop him. While the Bulldogs were pursuing Shamorie Ponds aggressively, it left the door open for Heron to have one on one opportunities, which he usually won.

Marvin Clark’s breakout game was similar to Heron’s. He hit a couple of threes, then took advantage by taking the ball in for driving layups or dunks against Joey Brunk and others. No one on Butler could handle him one on one.

Despite the earlier loss at Butler the matchups appeared to be in St. John’s favor and the players seemed ready to exploit the Bulldog deficiencies.

Help for Ponds?

Shamorie Ponds sets up the final play of the second half against Aaron Thompson
Wendell Cruz

For the Butler game there was lots of offensive firepower to assist Ponds. May we hope one or more of the players will be able to play at this level on a regular basis.

For this one game it was not a matter of assisting Ponds. Both Clark and Heron outscored him.

Does this mean they will repeat this performance in the upcoming Villanova game? We can hope but cannot expect.

Matchups play a clear role. Does someone on Villanova have the foot speed and the brawn to stay with Heron? When Heron is hitting his threes, he is a most difficult assignment to guard. Does Villanova have a game plan to keep the ball away from Shamorie Ponds? Can the Wildcats stifle Marvin Clark?

Additionally, St. John’s allowed 11 offensive rebounds. The frontline players, Clark, Sedee Keita and Josh Roberts, had four defensive rebounds between them for the game. Ponds and Simon combined for 13 defensive rebounds.

Rebounding from the frontline remains a concern, one that can detract from good offensive performances.

Johnnies come together to fight for a rebound; Justin Simon gets it
Wendell Cruz

Outlook

Each Big East game has a different dynamic to it.

Villanova brings a precision to its game with good outside shooting. However, when the Red Storm defense is ready with a good game plan it can make life difficult for any Big East opponent.

The re-emergence of Heron, playing perhaps his best game as a Johnnie, gives some optimism for the Villanova game. Do the Wildcats have players who can stay with him and with Shamorie Ponds? Will they go to a zone? If so, will the three point shooting of the Johnnies be there to shoot over the zone?

The Johnnies need to be prepared for whatever defense they may face. The Red Storm shot well from the three against Butler and dreadfully against Providence. The Red Storm also slowed down against Butler’s zone looks.

The Johnnies played the Wildcats competitively at Villanova, leading throughout the game until the last three minutes. There are six games to go and four wins probably gets the team close to the tournament.

How about six wins? With this team anything is possible.

The Garden seems more a neutral site than a home site with many Villanova fans expected. But there will still be more Red Storm fans.

The energy of the crowd during the Providence game at the Garden was poor. Fans need to step up with the team for the upcoming game. Bring the Butler game energy along.

Believe?

Shamorie Ponds celebrates
Wendell Cruz