While meeting with season ticket holders, prior to the game, at the 1870 Court next to Carnesecca Arena, the question of “which Johnny has shown the most improvement during the course of the season?” was raised. Three players were mentioned by several fans: Marcellus Earlington, Julian Champagnie and Rasheem Dunn. One fan added Greg Williams Jr.’s name to the list.
Another fan shared that, despite the team’s recent struggles, “it’s been a fun year and fans should not be critical of Coach Anderson; he only came onto the campus last spring”. The same fan commented that he appreciates what Rasheem Dunn brings to the team though, at times, he tries to force passes through miniscule openings in the opponents’ defense. However, “he is the only Johnnie who can attack the basket.”
While fans were discussing their thoughts, LJ Figueroa was drilling shot after shot from the right corner and then thirty feet away from the right wing during game warm ups. He seemed most ready to compete.
All fans agreed that tonight was a game the Johnnies were capable of winning despite missing the outside shooting of injured Mustapha Heron.
SPOILER ALERT: Game recap
In Mustapha Heron’s absence, Dunn, Champagnie, and Williams were joined in the starting lineup by L.J. Figueroa and Josh Roberts. It was a mostly filled Carnesecca Arena and the fans, particularly the students, were ready.
Six-foot-ten inch Nate Watson of Providence won the tap and immediately the students, located behind each of the baskets, erupted with “defense… defense.” The Johnnies took their cheers to heart. The Friars fed Watson under the basket on the right. Roberts came over to contest his position and Champagnie came around him, blocking his shot as he attempted a turnaround from five feet away.
All that earlier shooting practice paid dividends for Figueroa. Greg Williams Jr. attacked the basket and, drawing Friar defenders to him, he pitched back to Figueroa for an open three, a 3-0 Johnnies lead.
After a Watson bucket a minute later, the Johnnies fed Roberts under the basket. Instead of forcing a shot up against defending Friars, Roberts passed to a cutting Dunn at the foul line, who hit an open jumper for 5-2 lead.
Alpha Diallo, who would eventually score 19 points in the game, began attacking the basket and hit his first points on a layup to bring the Friars within one at 5-4.
The Johnnies quickly brought the ball up court and, five Red Storm passes later, Champagnie hit a three to make the score 8-4. The Friars went on top at the 14:41 mark when David Duke dunked the ball off of an AJ Reeves assist. In response, Dunn hit a driving Champagnie for a layup at 13:52. He was fouled and made the free throw, giving the Red Storm an 11-10 lead.
Marcellus Earlington entered the game and made his presence known.
First, he drove the right corner for a layup; then he made a steal but missed the layup. A Dunn drive into the paint resulted in a layup and a Johnnies five-point lead, 17-12. A Friar three brought the lead back to two but, shortly afterwards another 30-foot Figueroa bomb put the Johnnies back up by five.
The crowd responded with an even louder “defense… defense” than was heard earlier in the game. The crowd seemed more energized from the throughout the game than it had sounded in any previous games. Maybe it was being back on campus, or the desperate need to see a win.
The chants became “Let’s go Johnnies”.
Nick Rutherford pressured Maliek White of Providence, which allowed Earlington to steal the ball. Though the subsequent layup was missed Earlington corralled the rebound and fed Figueroa for his third three of the half, this one from the left wing. The Red Storm was up by eight at 23-15 with 9:22 to play in the first half.
The pressure defense was frustrating Providence, and the Friars were taking long shots with the 30 second clock running down. David Caraher entered the scoring column with a three from the left wing on an Earlington feed and the Johnnies were up 26-15.
Shortly afterwards Caraher found himself on the right wing with the crowd counting down 5-4-3-2. He drove, stepped back and fired a successful jumper just before the clock ran out.
Diallo was trying mightily to keep Providence in the game, taking down offensive rebounds and laying them back in. Williams was playing impressive defense and hitting the boards himself on the defensive end taking down rebounds against the efforts of the tall Friar frontcourt.
Damien Sears entered the game (with hist mop of curls completely shaven, a new look) near the end of the half and, although not scoring, Sears took down a critical rebound at the 1:30 mark to thwart an effort for Providence to come back before halftime.
Red Storm fans were pleased by the first half performance of the team but, remembering the past, could not help but share warnings. Providence will come out in a pressure defense in the second half and “we had better be ready.”
Halftime festivities included a routine by the award-winning Dance Team of St. John’s.
Then a real treat came – a performance by “Bently”, a frisbee chasing dog who thrilled the crowd running two thirds of the court and then jumping into the air to catch the thrown frisbee in its mouth. Every catch by Bentley was rewarded with loud cheers from the crown and every miss was met with light groans. There were many more catches than misses.
At the half the Johnnies led in field goal percentage, 42% to 38% and three point percentage, 42% to 20%. They were holding their own in the rebounding battle and their pressure defense led to eleven turnovers as compared to five for the Johnnies.
The first half starters also started the second half. Roberts was ready to play, knocking the ball out of a Friar’s hands and out of bounds. However, he was called for his third foul on the play. Shortly afterwards Figueroa, changing pace from his barrage of threes in the first half, drove from the right wing along the baseline and laid the ball in. The Johnnies were up 35-27.
A Roberts block of a Friar layup attempt led to Figueroa driving the length of the court and laying the ball in the hoop for a 40-27 lead. There was a Shamorie Ponds sighting in the arena, with him being interviewed by college basketball media personality Jon Rothstein.
Down by 13 with 17 minutes to play, Friar defenders suddenly began pressing.
The Friars were aggressive on both offense and defense, but a Figueroa steal and a subsequent pass to Roberts for a layup found the Red Storm ahead 43-32.
But there was still much time for the Friars to fight back. And, indeed, they did. A sloppy pass by Dunn, one of the few errors he made during the game, led to the Friars aggressively challenging the Red Storm basket, leading a goal tending call against Roberts, which dropped the lead to 45-37 with plenty of time, 15 minutes, to play.
A Roberts offensive rebound led to a pass to Williams for a dunk at 14:57 and a 47-37 lead. Then a bizarre sequence of events occurred, and the Friars were, most definitely, back in the game.
A questionable flagrant foul was called on David Caraher as he battled for position under the boards against the taller Friar frontcourt. Coach Anderson vehemently protested, taking off his jacket and was charged with a technical.
Providence made three out of four foul shots and, when Diallo hit a layup, it became a five point play. The St. John’s lead was down to five, 47-42.
But the Johnnies did not fold.
Williams stopped a string of “Red Storm make one out of two free throws attempts” by hitting two and Earlington took a feed down deep and hit a two foot turnaround over Diallo. The lead was back to a more comfortable nine points.
Then the Johnnies defense emerged as an enthusiastic crowd begged them on with chants of “defense…! defense...!” The Friars struggled to find an open man and with seconds remaining on the shot clock Roberts rejected a Maliek White drive to a thunderous applause.
The Friars were not done, and Diallo was at his best as they struggled to come back, At 11:45 a Diallo dunk brought the Friars within four but that was the closest they got. Earlington hit the first of two threes sandwiched around a Figueroa free throw and the Johnnies defense continued to bend but not break. The pressure continued to force the Friars into late-in-shot-clock field goal attempts that were mostly unsuccessful.
With five and a half minutes to play and the Red Storm up after a Dunn layup 65-54 a fan said, “I won’t be comfortable until there is a minute left to play.”
A few seconds later Figueroa hit a three for a 68-54 lead; the Red Storm hung on for a hard fought 80-69 victory.
Character building: who picks up the slack?
With second leading scorer Mustapha Heron out the question was, “who will pick up the slack?” The answer became clear — every member of the Red Storm.
LJ Figueroa led the scoring with 19 points with four three pointers. Damien Sears fought for and took down defensive rebounds near the end of the first half against the strong Friar frontcourt.
Nick Rutherford’s in your face defense and two steals leading to breakaway scores played a role.
Marcellus Earlington’s two confidently-taken three-pointers midway in the second half, just when needed, played a role, as did his post play.
The Dunn to Champagnie backdoor plays, which kept the Johnnies comfortably in the lead, played a role as well.
Caraher assisted with two jumpers in the first half as the Johnnies pulled away from a close contest.
Josh Roberts does what he does best – defense and activity near the rim. Meanwhile, 6’3” Greg Williams tied for the team lead in rebounds with seven. An overall team effort, including Coach Anderson standing up for his team when they needed him the most.
One notable statistic. When Providence beat St. John’s a year ago on 2/20/19 six-foot ten inch Nate Watson scored 21 points. When Providence beat St Johns on January 15th, Watson, coming off the bench scored eight points. Last night the Johnnies held him to four points, largely due to the efforts of Roberts and Champagnie.
Johnnies break the press
Everyone knew the Providence press was coming, just not quite when. The Johnnies handled it and attacked it, getting dunks at the rim against Friar gambles.
Yes, there were a few turnovers, but the statistics tell the story. The Johnnies had 13 turnovers in the game. At the end of the first half they had five. When the Friars pressed partway into the second half the Johnnies were ready, only committing eight turnovers in the entire second half despite intense pressure by Providence — not the best numbers but acceptable.
The Friars attempted a variety of presses, some full court and others, attempts to trap the Johnnies as they crossed the mid-court line. The first time this trap emerged Figueroa, caught in the corner, immediately called time out instead of attempting a risky pass out of the corner.
In contrast to the Friar’s second half traps, the Johnnies opened the game with full court pressure and continued off again, on again, throughout the contest. What was truly impressive was the variation in defenses both teams displayed. But the difference was simple – the Friars committed 23 turnovers and the Red Storm, 13.
Shooting and assists
The Johnnies hit nine out of 21 three-point attempts, led by Figueroa’s four threes, while holding the Friars to 27 percent shooting from long distance. One reason for the successful shooting from the three-point line was the crisp movement off-the-ball via passing.
There was less of the weave offense so prominent in previous games. Crisp passing led to more open three-point attempts and better success. The team registered 17 assists for 27 made field goals, a 63% ratio.
It was reminiscent of the high ratio of assists to field goals made in games earlier in the season, a team effort that led to success.
It has been a while since the Johnnies put together two halves like they did last evening. Fans were wondering at halftime when the Friar press would come, hoping that the Johnnies would not succumb. They did not.
The 63% assist ratio on made field goals was impressive against a good defensive team. The 46% field goal percentage was even more impressive. Can this be repeated?
It is on to a home game with Xavier on February 17th. Carnesecca Arena was rocking last night. Can the Garden likewise rock on the 17th, energizing the team on to victory?
Can a two-game winning streak turn around the team’s fortunes?
Xavier has a 5-7 league record and is 3-5 in away games in the Big East. A winnable game; will the fans come out?