The stands at Carnesecca Arena on New Year’s Eve were filling up a half hour before tipoff, much earlier than usual.
Watching from the seats, the St. John’s Red Storm may not have been hitting their jump shots in the pregame shootaround with accuracy but they seemed energized and smiling, ready for the challenge of the New Year’s Eve game against a tough, ranked Butler Bulldogs team, a chance to put their stamp on the Big East’s opening days.
Athletic Director Mike Cragg walked up into the stands to engage with the fans; he chatted about the status of Mustapha Heron.
Heron, the senior shooting guard, had practiced with the team all week but St. John’s was holding him out of this game as it was “best to keep him out,” Cragg said. “It is a long season,” he added.
As the Johnnies stepped onto the court at the beginning of the half, the stands erupted with “let’s go Red Storm.”
Former St. John’s star D`Angelo Harrison walked onto the court and waved to the crowd to continued cheers. The Butler Bulldogs were focused, calm and ready amidst the cheers.
Both teams are known for their focus on defense, though Butler does it by slowing the pace and St. John’s defends by speeding up the pace. Which style would dominate?
It turned out it was... both.
Point guard Nick Rutherford was assigned the task of defending Kamar Baldwin, the senior Butler star. On the first possession, Rutherford’s defense forced Baldwin to give up the ball to big man Bryce Golden, who missed a three-pointer. Rutherford took the rebound and pushed the ball up the court aggressively and fed LJ Figueroa, who missed a three.
A defensive battle loomed.
The Johnnies opened up the scoring on a Julian Champagnie layup for a 2-0 lead at the 18:52 mark. After the Bulldogs tied the score, Figueroa drove down the left wing and hit Josh Roberts, who laid the ball in for a 4-2 lead.
Butler opened up an 11-4 lead with Baldwin leading the way.
Second-stringers from the Red Storm fought back. A nice backdoor cut by Greg Williams was rewarded with a pass from Damien Sears to cut the deficit to 11-6. Figueroa left the game at the 12-minute mark with his second foul, but the play of Marcellus Earlington, nicknamed “Duke” by Red Storm fans, and Rasheem Dunn, tied the score 14 at the 7:45 mark.
Fans were feeling good as the team was holding its own without their top scorer, Mustapha Heron, in a game against the number eleven team in the country.
But the Johnnies went cold.
It was eight minutes of jump shooting to the end of the half with little success.
Meanwhile, Butler’s Jordan Tucker, Sean McDermott and Kamar Baldwin were hitting threes almost as often as the Johnnies were missing. The Bulldogs outscored the Johnnies 23-2 over the last 7:45 of the half.
To make matters worse, Figueroa returned to the game in the midst of the Bulldog run and, shortly afterwards , committed his third foul, returning to the bench.
Down 37-16 as the half began, the Johnnies immediately increased the defensive pressure. Though a Jordan Tucker three extended the Butler lead to 41-19, the Johnnies were not beaten.
Rutherford led the charge, attacking the basket and drawing fouls. Even when Figueroa had to leave the game with his fourth foul just three and a half minutes into the half, his teammates picked the effort up. Their defense became stifling.
When Rutherford connected on the Red Storm’s first three, the fans sensed there might be hope.
Layups by Dunn and Earlington, two free throws made by Dunn, then an Earlington dunk brought the deficit down to 13 at 46-33.
There were still 13 minutes left to play.
One fan stated, “All we need is a point a minute.”
The Johnnies would not need the full 13 minutes to catch up.
Greg Williams, Jr. joined in with a layup — plus one — and a David Caraher three at 7:30 tied the score.
The Red Storm had scored 17 straight points and the fans were on their feet after every Red Storm basket. An Earlington layup, assisted by Rutherford at the 6:49 mark gave the Johnnies their first lead since they led 4-2 in the first half.
A three by Baldwin, who had been out of the game for much of the half, put the Bulldogs back in the lead by a point.
Six straight points by Greg Williams, Jr. extended the Johnnies’ lead to five with four minutes to play.
But the Red Storm would only have a Dunn layup in the remainder of the game. Butler clamped down on defense, and Bulldog Christian David hit his only shot, a corner three, for the final score. St. John’s could not find their way to the basket in the final minute, even as Figueroa came in off the bench for the last 30 seconds.
The Bulldogs scored the last seven points on their way to a two-point victory, 60-58.
Let’s start with Butler. The Bulldogs led the game at halftime with Kamar Baldwin scoring 14 points, hitting four three-pointers. The Bulldogs led by 21 points, 37-16.
Baldwin injured his ankle in the first half and sat on the bench until he returned with 8:49 to play in the second half and the score was 46-43 Butler. While Baldwin was on the bench, the Johnnies outscored Butler 27-9.
The Red Storm’s 19-0 run ended with Baldwin hitting a three with 5:24 to play, giving Butler the lead. He added a jumper and also assisted on the winning basket. His last play of the game was to take down a rebound with 13 seconds making it more difficult for the Johnnies to put up another shot in an attempt to tie the game.
Baldwin’s heroics in the second half were done on an injured ankle. A senior leader, his presence stabilized a foundering team which committed 24 turnovers in the game.
Senior Mustapha Heron could not play recovering from his injured ankle. As the team gathered at midcourt after the game, it was Heron addressing them and the players were attentive. Senior leadership matters.
Would the team have won if Heron suited up? We do not know.
We do know that Heron is the most capable three-point shooter on the team. More important, perhaps, is the fact that Heron and Figueroa are the team’s go to players, like Baldwin is for Butler.
With Figueroa struggling, Heron’s absence due to injury was substantial.
The Johnnies as a team shot 18% on threes. Heron is connecting on three-point shots at a 41% clip this year.
Defense wins... well, almost
Butler was number five in the country in avoiding turnovers; St. John’s defense caused them to turn the ball over 24 times during the game. The Johnnies defense, particularly in the second half, was so intense that, even when it did not cause a turnover, Butler never got their offense untracked during the second half run.
The Bulldogs committed shot clock violations or took off-balance attempts with under three seconds on the shot clock. Of the 24 turnovers, 16 were steals and many turned into layups as the Red Storm cut into the Butler lead.
The one troubling spot on defense was the fact that the team was not taking down rebounds off missed Bulldog shots. The Bulldogs took down 13 offensive rebounds including the most critical one with 43 seconds to play after a Marcellus Earlington block, as the Johnnies were nursing a one point lead.
Is the aggressive style of defensive pressure by the Johnnies making it more difficult for them to box out their man? Or perhaps their defensive pressure was forcing Butler to take many long jumps shots which, when missed, resulted in long rebounds that went to spots farther from the Red Storm rebounders?
Foul trouble LJ Figueroa faced limited his playing time. He is averaging 4.9 rebounds per game and had no rebounds in 14 minutes of playing time.
The Johnnies played great defense for 32 minutes of the game with a less effective effort in the final eight minutes of the first half.
What was different in the end of the first half? The Red Storm scored two points in the last eight minutes. Without scoring, the opportunity to set up their pressure defense was not available.
This type of defensive effort will keep the team in games throughout the year.
What about the offense?
When forced into a half court game, the Johnnies connected on a couple of back door cut plays, allowing them to keep the game close. After tying the score at 14, the Johnnies missed four three-point attempts and hit 1/6 jumpers.
There were no fast break points, no back door cut plays and no layups.
There were a couple of shots that seemed to roll around the rim and out. In addition the top three-point shooter in uniform, Figueroa, was sitting on the bench for most of this period.
Is there an answer? The team has been shooting free throws better (82% for the Butler game) than they were in the earlier games of the season. Reportedly the team focused on free throw shooting. Can such efforts improve the jump shooting in a short time?
The Red Storm has many athletic and defensive intense players. Coaches cannot teach athletic ability; they can teach shooting techniques.
“I told my guys I have never been more proud of a team… They fought. They never gave in,” Mike Anderson said after the game.
They also received support from the fans right from the very beginning of the game. There was energy all over Carnesecca Arena.
Fans may be disappointed that the team did not make those last few shots or grab the rebound after the Earlington block in the last minute of the game. But the team left the court to an ovation from fans.
There are two Big East road games coming up. No games in the Big East will be easy but the team demonstrated that they will compete.
Getting senior Mustapha Heron, who also appears to be their top shooter, back on the court hopefully will fill the void that was evident particularly in the first half against Butler.
Greg Williams, Jr. seems to be coming around offensively. Damien Sears is demonstrating his value as a defender and rebounder and had a nice assist on a back door cut by Williams in the first half. Nick Rutherford stepped up as a leader, hit a couple of threes and made six steals. Each game, a different Johnnie demonstrates his value to the team.
Will the team gel? How long will it take? We should learn how the team responds to a crushing loss as soon as Saturday with a challenging game at Xavier.