As St. John’s fans poured into an almost-sold out Madison Square Garden for a contest with the Seton Hall Pirates, they encountered a mini village of baby strollers.
No, the Red Storm were not commencing their recruiting for the class of 2034. On a day when the Garden featured a late evening Big East battle for third place amongst young adult athletes, it was holding a Sesame Street Live! performance for the really young in the afternoon. (There may have been a perspective Red Storm recruit present downstairs in the Hulu Theater, we didn’t give the kids a skills test.)
As fans passed the stroller village they were noticeably quiet in making predictions about the upcoming game.
Their uncertainty accelerated hearing the news that Mustapha’s knee injury would keep him out of the contest. One person commented that Shamorie Ponds reportedly took extra shooting practice after the team’s Friday practice.
“We need Ponds to be Ponds,” was the response.
With both Jay Camus and Marvin Clark II being honored for their careers at St. John’s there was an ovation for each player as the crowd was entering the arena.
Ten minutes later, the overhead screen showed Clark speaking with the Johnnies in a circle, arms around each other, just prior to coming onto the court. Audio was unavailable, but it was clear there was an earnestness in Clark’s demeanor that drew the attention of his teammates.
On Senior Night Marvin Clark won the opening jump against 6’10“ Sandro Mamukelashvili of Seton Hall. Thirty seconds later Ponds hit a three from the top of the key for a 3-0 lead.
Tight defense led to Mamukelashvili throwing the ball away and Ponds responded with a foul line jumper. He appeared to have regained his touch from the outside. Ponds, being Ponds.
After a layup by Myles Cale brought the Pirate deficit back to three, St. John’s went on a 12-0 run over the next three minutes featuring two threes by Clark. Less than five minutes into the game, the Red Storm led 17-2.
A third three by Clark followed by a layup found the senior making the most of his Senior Day appearance. The layup was a pretty play off of an inbounds pass by Justin Simon under the Seton Hall basket.
Bryan Trimble Jr. started the game in place of Heron and was replaced by Sedee Keita at the 14:40 mark. Shortly afterwards Greg Williams Jr. and Marcellus Earlington entered the game. Earlington hit a layup to increase the lead to 26-5. His basket was assisted by Keita.
At 12:26 Williams drew a charge on a still scoreless Myles Powell, the Hall’s leading scorer.
At the under 12 official TV timeout a fan asked, “what’s the matter with Seton Hall tonight?”
The immediate answer from her companion was, “ Red Storm defense is playing really well. No easy shots allowed.”
After a layup by LJ Figueroa to increase the lead to 28-5, the Red Storm went cold. The Johnnies went scoreless for almost seven minutes while Seton Hall enjoyed an 11-0 run, led by several Pirates.
Ponds broke the scoring drought with a jumper at 4:27, increasing the Red Storm lead to 30- 16. Fourteen seconds later Powell broke his personal scoring drought with a jumper — and then followed with a layup at 3:54 cutting the Red Storm lead to ten, 30 -20.
The Johnnies ended the half with an 8-0 run which culminated with Sedee Keita blocking two Pirate layups on the same possession. The blocks led to a Pirate 30 second violation and and gave the ball to the Johnnies with 23 seconds left to play.
Ponds slowly dribbled the ball down the court, taking seconds off the clock. With eight seconds remaining he attacked the basket drawing Seton Hall defenders. As they rotated, he found an open Figueroa in the right corner who hit a three as the clock was running down. St. John’s went into the locker room with a 38-20 lead.
The first half statistics found Seton Hall leading in only one relevant category — rebounding, having hauled in 17 rebounds to the Johnnies 13.
Even with the seven minute scoring drought, the Johnnies were hitting on 49% of their shots, including 5/11 from three-point distance. The Pirates were hitting 28 percent and had gone 0/8 from three point distance.
The Johnnies had seven steals to two for the Pirates and surprisingly had blocked eight Pirate shots.
As play began a fan predicted a Hall comeback. “The Pirates have a good coach who will make adjustments,” he said. That was a clear crystal ball assessment.
It did not take long to recognize the adjustments being made. The Pirates began feeding a scoreless Mamukelashvili, and he responded scoring six points in the first two and a half minutes. Seton Hall was in a zone; St. John’s countered by feeding Figueroa, at the foul line who drove to the basket and picked up a foul on Powell. He hit his two free throws ending a 5-0 run for Seton Hall.
A circus-like underhanded shot by Ponds at kept the Johnnies comfortably ahead 42-31. Scores by Simon and Ponds, coupled with Williams challenging Mamukelashvili on a dunk and picking up a foul, hitting one of two free throws, extended the lead to 47-33.
The fourth three by Clark at 14:38 and a Ponds jumper a minute later erased the Seton Hall comeback attempt with the Johnnies up by nineteen, 52-33.
But the Pirates were not done as an 8-0 run, led by six from a re-energized Powell, cut the lead to 14 with ten minutes to play.
Ponds and Keita broke the run but the Hall, particularly Powell, kept battling. They went into an aggressive press with all five defenders in the Johnnies backcourt. The Red Storm struggled a bit breaking the press and making good decisions. Simon picked up his fourth foul and had to leave the game for several minutes.
With 1:46 to play Michael Nzei of Seton Hall was on the line with two free throws and with the Red Storm holding a tenuous six point lead. He made one of two and the Red Storm led by five.
At 1:01 Clark was fouled and, with a chance to put the game, in essence, beyond reach, he made two of two foul shots.
He then rebounded a missed three by Powell and ended a remarkable Senior Night with 18 points on 6/10 shooting and six rebounds, hitting on 4/8 three point attempts. He and Ponds led the Red Storm to a 78-70 victory.
Stepping up: Ponds was Ponds and Clark made the difference
Three days earlier the combination of Ponds and Clark shot 2/11 with no three pointers made. Tonight they shot 16/28 with five threes. What was different?
After the game coach Kevin Willard of Seton Hall summarized by stating that St, Johns, in particular Marvin Clark, played the game “with a sense of urgency” that his team did not have.
Ponds also stated, before the game, that he felt it was time for the team and himself to “step up.”
Clark talked about the presence of his family playing a role in his personal intensity from the onset of the contest.
It is also noted that Clark played 38 minutes and only picked up three fouls, the third foul with less than two minutes to play. Never being in foul trouble allowed Clark to play his game without compromise.
Shamorie Ponds hit his first three then a 15-footer from the foul line in the first minute of play.
The short range jumper became a staple for him throughout the game and is a shot not often seen in previous games. Hitting five such shots reminded fans of D’Angelo Harrison’s senior year when he developed an almost unstoppable driving then pull up jumper. Is this shot the missing piece in Ponds’ arsenal?
Zone defenses trouble again
The Johnnies seem to be doing better against the zone. They set Figueroa up at the foul line and he was fouled by Powell early in the second half. It was an excellent way of attacking the zone. But how often was this play used?
Of additional concern was the Johnnies’ struggle against the full court zone press put in place by the Pirates in the latter part of the second half.
The Johnnies appeared to handle it well at times with some crisp passing. But at other times, there were two giveaways by Simon and Williams that led to quick baskets by Seton Hall.
As opponents (like Xavier) review film of the game, it can be anticipated that similar pressure will become part of their arsenal if needed. There is time to continue to fine tune the means of beating the press and to continue to work on plays to attack a zone.
As the three pointers fall… so go the Johnnies
Shooting threes successfully is a major part of the team’s offensive success.
In the first half the Red Storm shot 5/11 on threes (46 percent) and led by 18.
In the second half they shot 2/11 (18 percent) and the Hall almost pulled the game out.
Yes, there were other factors. But the team is dependent on successful three point shooting, while sometimes struggling to get good shots off.
To shoot successfully is often due to good game planning/ game adjustments which open the door to undefended three point attempts.
Not forcing three pointers, particularly when trying to slow down possessions (take time off the clock) is also necessary; those shots against the expiring clock are easier for opponents to defend.
Success also depends upon individual confidence. Some of the Johnnies, particularly Clark and Ponds, have found success after taking extra shooting practice.
The Johnnies shot 32 percent for the game, below their average in conference play. A healthy Mustapha Heron should help that.
Being outrebounded in almost every game this season cannot always be overcome by winning the turnover battle. Shooting threes successfully can help.
We continue to say one game at a time. The New York Post suggested today that the Johnnies have the best talent in the league. The second team talent, particularly Sedee Keita, Greg Williams Jr. and Marcellus Earlington, is contributing during crucial minutes of the game.
In the Seton Hall contest the three scored 11 points, took down 10 of team’s 27 rebounds and had ten of the team’s 12 blocks during the game.
With this talent emerging, missing Heron was not as critical as missing a starter was earlier in the season.
Next, it’s the last home game of the season against a revitalized Xavier squad. There is time to fine tune the approach to zone defenses. Time to take extra shooting practice.
One game at a time. The team believes and we fans also should be believers.