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Takeaways: St. John’s goes up, then crashes in Big East Tournament

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Shooting from deep abandons team in quarterfinal loss to Marquette

Wendell Cruz

A look back on the Big East Tournament games from the Red Storm. The Johnnies finally won a game over DePaul, but got blown out by Marquette.

How did it go down? A recap, from the stands.

St. John’s/ DePaul March 13th: The Play-in Game

A nervous St. John’s crowd came to the Garden for the play-in game in the Big East Tournament. Amidst the nervousness was a conviction that, if the Red Storm “played their game,” that they would come out victorious.

A sixteen year old fan felt the key to the game was for “Ponds to have a big game and someone to effectively guard Femi Olujobi. Justin Simon can keep Max Stuss under control.”

Another fan spoke out in favor of Chris Mullin and the coaching staff stating that “It’s a challenge to take all these transfers from other programs and blend them together. It’s our best season in some time and, if we play our game like we’re capable, we should be successful.”

A third fan stated that the team had to get Mustapha Heron involved. His attacking the basket style of play should draw fouls on DePaul and it was noted that they, like St. John’s, are not a deep team.

Marvin Clark won the tip.

On their first offensive possession, Mustapha Heron drove down the left side and pulled up for a 16-footer.

When the Blue Demons got the ball the defensive strategy of the Red Storm was clear. Defensive player of the year Justin Simon, was pressuring Max Strus every time he got the ball and it was clear that Strus was uncomfortable.

Meanwhile, Marvin Clark was guarding Olujobi closely, denying him comfortable position near the basket. He was very effective; Olujobi only scored six points in the game.

The Johnnies’ defense was creating miscues by DePaul and both Simon and LJ Figueroa were cashing in on fast breaks. At 16:30 Femi Olujobi was double teamed and travelled. Shamorie Ponds followed with a drive from the right side to put the Red Storm up 13-4.

It was a good start but some fans remembered the start a short time ago against DePaul when the Johnnies jumped out into a 16-4 lead only to lose it all and the game. “There is a long way to go,” one fan summarized.

Coach Mullin substituted Josh Roberts, Bryan Trimble and Greg Williams into the game at the fourteen minute mark and Eli Cain of DePaul took advantage. He began attacking the basket, hitting layups, put backs or being fouled and making his free throws. He scored the next eight points for the Blue Demons.

Suddenly the Johnnies lead was down to four.

The teams exchanged baskets and then Simon made one of his few mistakes, charging at an open Strus as he hit a three from the right corner. He fouled him and Strus made the free throw, a four point play, which tied the score at 18 all. Fans were concerned that this resembled the March 3 game at DePaul.

Marvin Clark strikes
Wendell Cruz

Clark responded by faking a three and driving the lane for a layup putting the Johnnies back on top at 10:25. The score teetered between being tied and the Johnnies ahead by four or five for the rest of the half.

As the half was closing out, Max Strus of DePaul was accumulating fouls.

With two fouls on him the Johnnies posted Simon down low in front of the basket as he was Struss’ responsibility. Simon effectively received passes and spun to the basket for layups.

One of these moves with two minutes to go was, at the end of the game, highlighted by Madison Square Garden as the “shot of the game”.

Simon posted up Strus and established an angle that allowed him to make a spin move towards the right side of the basket. Falling down after drawing Struss’ second foul, Simon was able to take an underhanded shot that somehow swished through the basket. The Red Storm led 36-31 after Simon hit the foul shot. At the 55 second mark Simon drew the third foul on Struss. It was a frustrating half for the DePaul star who only scored six points on 2/5 shooting.

Second Half

Like the game on March 3, DePaul started the second half looking to feature Max Strus. Instead of taking a long range three, Strus attacked the basket driving across the lane and taking a seven foot floater.

Justin Simon, coming from behind, cleanly blocked the shot, starting a Ponds to Figueroa fast break for a 41-35 Johnnies lead. It was the defensive play of the game.

Baskets were traded and it became apparent that this was not a one or two man show.

Devin Gage defends Shamorie Ponds in a zone
Wendell Cruz

Ponds, Heron, Simon and Figueroa were all heading towards double figures and all were shooting over fifty percent. At 16:00 a steal by Heron led to a break out by Figueroa and extended the Red Storm lead to seven, 47-40.

Sedee Keita came in to spell Clark, who had received his third foul. Keita continued the effort to make Olujobi uncomfortable. At 15:40 Keita fouled the DePaul big man, refusing to give him an open lane to the basket. Olujobi missed his two free throws and the game seemed to be turning the direction of the Red Storm.

A fan said, “Let’s be ahead by 10 points with 10 minutes to go, and I will begin to feel confident.”

When the clock showed 10:01 to play in the game the Johnnies were up by nine. Fans continued to remain guarded; it was reflected in a Garden crowd that cheered the team on, but did not display the excitement heard from the Providence fans as the Friars defeated Butler earlier in the evening.

DePaul was able to whittle the lead down to eight with eight and a half minutes to play, but a Ponds three at 8:28 put the Johnnies up by eleven. Shortly thereafter Ponds dribbled at the top of the key until there was six seconds left on the shot clock, then drove the lane, pulled up 10 feet away and hit a driving Simon for a layup with one second left and a 70-57 lead.

The Blue Demons continued to battle and were able to reduce the lead to 10 with just under three minutes to play.

Now it was Marvin Clark’s time to step up, hitting a three at 2:16, a dagger in the comeback attempt of the Blue Demons.

Bench celebrates
Wendell Cruz

A group of excited and young Johnnie fans were once again chanting “Let’s Go Johnnies”.

Invigorated, it looked like the fans were ready for Marquette.


March 14, 2019 St. John’s/Marquette: The Quarterfinals

There were a little over two minutes to play in the game. Greg Williams Jr. was bringing the ball up court. Mustapha Heron ran the baseline then cut around a screen in the left corner and received a perfect pass from Williams. He went up for an open 16-foot jump shot.

The ball rimmed in and out.

So it was for the Johnnies. They were still playing hard, down by 34 points to a Marquette Golden Eagles team looking to move forward in the tournament despite two losses to the Johnnies earlier in the year.

The beginning of the game looked promising.

In the first minute Justin Simon tied up Big East Player of the Year Markus Howard, drawing a foul from Howard. LJ Figueroa hit a three from from the corner and the Johnnies led three to two. But an unsung hero for the Golden Eagles, Sacar Anim, hit a layup at 18:06 and Marquette never looked back.

The Johnnies led the game for all of 26 seconds.

Anim, at 6’5”, began backing down 6’1” Shamorie Ponds and was an early scoring leader for Marquette as it jumped out to a nine to five lead.

At the 15:38 time out Coach Mullin corrected defense assignments with Heron assigned to cover Amin. Heron was able to hold him in check. At 14:44 Ponds drove left, with a behind the back dribble, followed by two spin moves and a layup to tie the score at nine to nine.

Shamorie Ponds takes on the whole Marquette defense
Wendell Cruz

Oos and ahs were heard from a predominantly Xavier crowd with whom we sat. A short jumper by Simon at 13:50 tied the score at 11; but it was downhill for the rest of the half with the Golden Eagles leading 38-26 at the break.

As the second half began the Johnnies defense tightened. A steal by Ponds followed by a dunk by Simon at 14:59 cut the deficit to six at 43-37. The team still was not hitting from the outside and most of the team’s points came from layups and dunks. At this point of the game the Red Storm had seven steals to one for Marquette.

One Johnnie fan was not worried, saying “when we finally start hitting our jumpers, we can pull this game out.”

St. John’s did not hit their jumpers.

For Red Storm fans, only disappointment was to follow. The Red Storm scored just four points in the next four and a half minutes while Marquette exploded for 21. A combination of poor shooting, Marquette breakouts in response and Johnnies fouling Golden Eagle shooters on three point attempts added to the onslaught.

The Red Storm did keep competing. Though eventually losing by an 86 to 54 score, the team continued to play hard. By games end the Johnnies had nine steals to two for Marquette and six blocks to two blocks for the Golden Eagles.

Dejected
Wendell Cruz

What Happened?

When you shoot a 9.55 inch basketball towards an 18 inch hoop, sometimes it will go in and sometimes it will not.

Against DePaul on Wednesday night Red Storm shots were accurate. Not so against Marquette.

In warmups Shamorie Ponds swished just about every three point attempt he took. He looked very ready after shooting 3/4 on threes against DePaul. However, he shot 0/4 on Thursday and abandoned the three point attempt as the game progressed.

As a team the Johnnies shot 3/20 on three-point attempts. It was payback, perhaps, from the first Marquette game when Big East Player of the Year Markus Howard, shot 2/15 against the Red Storm in an 89 to 69 Golden Eagle defeat.

Was the poor shooting due to a Marquette defense that was superior to the DePaul defense?

It did not appear so. Many Johnnie jump shots were open as teammates drove the lane then passed out to open shooters.

Was it tired legs after a hard earned victory the night before? Possibly, but the defensive statistics seemed to indicate that the Red Storm played with energy, at least in the first half; though Markus Howard had a much more effective game in his third try against the Red Storm.

Was it that the Red Storm shooters were just mechanically doing something wrong?

Or was it just basketball?

The Johnnies responded well in the second half of the DePaul game, sharing the scoring responsibilities and executing a solid game plan. Marquette, on the other hand, figured out how to get their offensive engine going, finally, against the Johnnies.

Outlook

Last night a friend from Florida sent me a simple message: “the Johnnies got crushed.”

It certainly looked this way to the fans (and the selection committee?). This is the third year in a row that the Red Storm won the play in game only to be beaten badly in the quarter finals.

There is a difference this year. In the past two years the Johnnies entered the tournament with a losing record but not this year. This year, there is at least one more game to play.

Marvin Clark was recently quoted as saying, “I came to St. John’s to help the team turn their program around.”

Marvin and his teammates, despite the late-season swoon, have done so. Maybe St. John’s get into the tournament as an eleventh or twelfth seed and will play a sixth or fifth seed opponent in the opening round. How many fifth or sixth seeds do you think will want to play St. John’s in the first round if they are clicking?

But will they click? Given the recent upsets in conference tournaments, will St. John’s even make the NCAA Tournament?

If they don’t get in, there will be the NIT. Yes, the NIT feels disappointing, but it is a higher level of postseason than what the Red Storm have reached in years; it would be a chance to play home games, for younger players to get more games under their belts, and an opportunity to end the season on a high note.