Forty minutes before tipoff, the quartet of Mustapha Heron, L.J. Figueroa, Rasheem Dunn and Julian Champagnie were shooting around the horn jumpers, first at midrange and then back past the three-point circle. It was the same quartet who took extra shooting practice before the DePaul game.
With assistants feeding the shooters, the quartet was hitting around fifty percent in practice, undefended. Some wondered where was Greg Williams, Jr., who was beginning to show some skill at shooting from deep. Should the quartet have been a quintet?
Ten minutes later the full team ran a weave layup drill and appeared, despite being underdogs, ready to compete. They wore black warmup jerseys with the inscription “We Cannot Walk Alone … Dr. Martin Luther King”.
Romaro Gill at 7'2" easily won the center jump over 6'9" inch Josh Roberts and the Red Storm fans feared a difficult game under the basket was coming.
But the jump ball is not the game, and Roberts was ready to play. At 19:06 of the half, Gill missed a layup and took down a rebound. He went back up to try and score. Despite being five inches shorter, Josh Roberts blocked his shot, which led to a breakout. Heron hit a three from the left corner for the first points of the game.
Roberts hit a close shot off of an assist from Figueroa, his first points in what would become a breakout game for the sophomore.
Right after the official time at 16:00 Heron hit a 15-footer from the foul line, extending the lead to 10-4. Heron was on, and had scored eight of the first Red Storm points.
Seton Hall closed the gap to 10-8. The Roberts/ Marcellus Earlington tandem stepped up. First Earlington fed Josh Roberts for a layup. Twenty seconds later, Earlington stole the ball and fed Roberts on the right wing. Roberts, returning the pass, hit a driving Earlington for a layup and a 14-8 lead at the 14:11 mark. The Johnnies were clearly ready to compete, aggressive and sharing the ball.
Seton Hall’s Myles Powell made his first field goal, a layup at the 8:51, to cut the deficit to 18-16. In response, 20 seconds later LJ Figueroa hit a layup on an assist from Heron and the Johnnies were up 20-16.
The Johnnies went into full court pressure doubling the ball carrier in the backcourt. Quincy McKnight turned the ball over, leading to another Figueroa score.
McKnight, who had led the Pirates with seven points in the game, again turned the ball over under pressure from Nick Rutherford. Though Rutherford missed a layup, reserve forward Ian Steere took down the rebound and went back up to dunk the ball. The Johnnies led 24-14.
McKnight continued to score as the Pirates came back. With 4:40 left in the half Powell hit a three and Seton Hall was within one, 28-27. The Johnnies then went on a 15-3 run, capped off by a Figueroa steal and layup at the buzzer.
At the Half
Halftime statistics showed the Red Storm shooting 48.7% from the field to Seton Hall’s 34.5%. The Pirates were outrebounding the Johnnies, but the undersized Johnnies were holding their own, taking down 17 rebounds to the Hall’s 20. What made the difference was the Johnnies margin in steals , 11-2. Many of the Red Storm’s steals were turned into layups.
St. John’s fans all seemed to agree that this was the Red Storm’s best half of the season. with contributions from everyone. However, one Seton Hall fan made an ominous prediction, “After halftime adjustments, we always play better in the second half.”
Seventeen seconds into the second half a Gill putback dropped the lead to 11. Then the Pirates went into a full court press of their own. Dunn turned the ball over and Powell hit a layup. The lead was down to nine and Pirates fans were coming alive.
After a Gill free throw, Rasheem Dunn stopped the mini-run and extended the St. John’s lead to 45-35. A Roberts tip at the 18:36 mark increased the lead to 47-35.
Still, the Pirates press was causing Red Storm turnovers as Johnnies guards were trying to dribble through double teams. Fans were heard calling out, “Hit the open man.”
As the Johnnies were struggling, Powell was getting hot. Two consecutive scores by Powell at the 16-minute mark brought Seton Hall within four. At the 14:21 mark, freshman Tyrese Samuel hit two free throws and the Red Storm lead was two, 51-49. It was truly anyone’s game.
The game went back and forth with St. John’s maintaining a one to five point lead until a Gill free throw tied the game at 56 with ten minutes to play.
At 8:17 Powell gave Seton Hall their first lead of the game on a three-pointer from the top of the key.
Twenty-nine seconds later Figueroa tied it with a three.
The game continued to go back and forth with Powell saving his best for the end of the game, scoring nine more points.
After Dunn tied the score at 75 with 1:23 to play, Seton Hall took the lead on a McKnight free throw. Dunn drove down the right of the paint and appeared to hit a layup but was called for an offensive foul. Powell responded with a layup for a three-point lead.
St. John’s called timeout with 26 seconds to play. Dunn attacked and laid the ball in, cutting the lead to one. Two Pirate free throws extended the lead to three. Dunn missed a layup but the Johnnies took down the rebound. A nice out of bounds play found Earlington ten feet out and he hit the jumper.
Down by one, St. John’s forced the last shot, but missed, and the Red Storm succumbed 82-79.
Heron and Figueroa on Back on Track/ Sophomores Sparkle
Heron scored 18 points, hitting from distance, mid-range and on drives to the basket despite the height of the Seton Hall front court.
He made 6/13 shots. Figueroa did one better, hitting 7/13 for 16 points. Figueroa also had seven steals. His fouling out with 1:37 to play took away one of the two best options on the team as they attempted to come back. The relatively young Johnnies need their stars to perform and, against a tall Pirate defense, they played fairly well.
Along with the team leaders the three sophomores sparkled. Greg Williams, Jr. scored four points, played stellar defense and took down four defensive rebounds in 23 minutes played.
Marcellus Earlington scored nine points and took down three defensive rebounds in 13 minutes.
Josh Roberts, despite his late game struggles at the foul line, scored 16 points on eight for eleven shooting and took down eight rebounds, six of them offensive. This was against a front line with two seven footers and a 6’10” inch player. The coaches are believing in these sophomores and they are starting to believe in themselves.
Guards do their defensive part
Red Storm guards accounted for 11 of the team’s 13 steals, no surprise. But if we count LJ Figueroa as a guard, the Johnnies guards took down 15 of the team’s 22 defensive rebounds (77%). (In comparison, the guards on Seton Hall took down 45% of the team’s defensive rebounds.) It is also impressive that, even when dropping back to help with the rebounding, the Johnnies guards were been able to break out and push the ball down court.
Game after game Figueroa and Williams always do their share on the defensive boards and the guard’s rebounding on the defensive end is keeping the team in games, particularly when the front court is struggling.
Not only the coaches that have to make adjustments
The biggest difference in the two halves is exemplified by the following statistic. In the first half the Johnnies had eleven steals while the Pirates had two. In the second half it was two apiece. The prediction of the Seton Hall follower, “After halftime adjustments, we always play better” came true.
Adjustments by the coaching staff are often under scrutiny and rightfully so. Against the Pirates the players got caught flat at the beginning of the second half. They were not ready for the Pirate press at its beginning. Too often the Johnnies guards tried to dribble through double teams and teammates did not come towards them to assist. The problem was corrected but not until the halftime lead was reduced to low single digits.
The Red Storm likes to play fast but there were times you have to adapt. At least three times at the beginning of the second half guards drove deep into the paint only to have their shots rejected by the Seton Hall front line, led by Romano Gill, who had six of the team’s ten blocks in the game. In addition the Red Storm had two thirty second violations called .
Was this inability to adjust in a timely fashion on the coaching staff or on the players? A review of the game tape will show some bad choices made by players to be learned from. The backcourt of the Red Storm is mostly upper classmen, who were caught a little flat by the Pirate pressure. All players, including upper classmen, have things to learn from a games review.
The Red Storm wore warm up jerseys inscribed “We Cannot Walk Alone … Dr. Martin Luther King”. At this moment in time, after another loss by five or less points, the team needs to continue to take that admonition to heart and its inference… succeed by playing together as a team with a goal of a team victory.
No single played will carry the squad. It seems a different player steps up each game and, despite the free throw struggles, it was Josh Roberts against the Pirates.
Is there an upside ahead? The shooting percentages are up, in part, because the team cut down on the percentage of three-point shots …18.7% against Seton Hall while the team’s season percentage is 30%. Guards were feeding Josh Roberts more, hitting him in close to the basket where he hit eight of eleven shots.
The two leaders had a strong game and Rasheem Dunn improves each game, providing speed and offense. The three sophomores contributed greatly against the only undefeated team in the Big East. So there is reason to feel cautious optimism.
One thing all can agree on is that every game in the Big East will be a challenge for every team. This means there are multiple challenges ahead for the Johnnies, but it also suggests that they can be competitive in all games.
On to Marquette where the Johnnies appear to have guard defenders able to challenge Markus Howard. If they can, victory is in reach.