“The kids always fight hard,” one St. John’s fan said at the 1870 Court prior to the game, “I am not ready to give up on the year.”
Another fan piped in, “I wish Nick Rutherford would be back next year to simply play in practice against some of the recruits to toughen them up.”
Fans also expressed sadness that Coach Anderson, despite doing what they felt was a good job, was facing a real possibility that this would be his first losing season. Anderson is one of four coaches to have coached 15 or more seasons without having a losing season.
Present at the game was 10-year-old Joseph, who in the past four years has attended six St. John’s games, mostly against Big East rivals. The Johnnies have won five of the six games he has attended.
“He has been a good luck charm for the Johnnies”, his grandfather, a season ticket holder, shared. The fans were excited for one more Carnesecca Arena game, and the seats were adorned with the “white out” t-shirts. While the stands were not filled at tip-off, the seats were near capacity as the game swung into high gear.
Would today’s game against Creighton extend Joseph’s streak of attending Johnnies’ victories to six and one?
Marcellus Earlington, who had a strong 25 point, 10 rebound performance against Creighton in the teams’ first meeting in Omaha, joined the St. John’s starting lineup. He joined Julian Champagnie up front with Rasheem Dunn, LJ Figueroa and Greg Williams, Jr.
In an unlikely start for the offensively challenged Red Storm, the game started (after a defensive miscommunication led to Creighton’s Damien Jefferson scoring a layup) with Figueroa stealing the ball from the Mitch Ballock and passing to Dunn in the right corner, who hit a three for a 3-0 Red Storm lead. Shortly thereafter, Williams hit a three and the Johnnies were up 6-2 at the 18:03 mark of the first half.
Marcellus Earlington picked up his second foul at the 17-minute mark and had to come out of the game. Josh Roberts replaced him and was injured going up for an offensive rebound a short time later. He went to the locker room for a time, and remained out for the game.
With Earlington riding the bench for the half, the Johnnies were down two of their frontcourt players.
David Caraher, who had scored seven total points in the four games since the last Creighton matchup, replaced Roberts.
A Dunn drive down the right side of the basket resulted in him being fouled and hitting one of two foul shots. A Williams steal and a nice lead pass to a Figueroa for a dunk put the Johnnies ahead, nine to eight.
St. John’s began pressing after made baskets and, though not resulting in takeaways, it made Bluejay ball handlers work hard, taking additional seconds to get the ball across half court.
The Johnnies did a good job closing off open passing lanes to three-point shooters. However, this led to several back door cut plays until the officials’ timeout at the 14-minute mark. Afterwards, Red Storm defenders were more aware; they cut off most of the easy lob passes towards the basket, while still maintaining pressure on the Bluejays on the perimeter.
With St. John’s up 14-12, Damien Sears joined a lineup of Rutherford, Dunn, Williams and Caraher.
After Creighton tied the score, Caraher hit a step back eight-footer from the right corner. On the next possession, four Red Storm passes found an open Williams on the left wing. Williams did not hesitate to put up a three-pointer; the make increased the lead to 19-14 around the 12 minute mark.
A Sears block and a feed to Dunn, who raced down the court, resulted in the third free throw opportunity for Dunn. Creighton defenders, particularly point guard Marcus Zegarowski, were struggling to stay with him as he attacked.
The only negative for the Johnnies on offense was the tendency to hit one out of two free throw attempts, which Dunn, once again, repeated. At this point of the contest the combo of Dunn and Williams had each scored six points.
Around the ten minute mark of the half, Damien Sears backed in and hit a turnaround two footer.
Then, a short time later walk-on Justin Cole hit one-dribble pull-up jumper and the Johnnies led 28-16. The crowd loudly supported Cole and the Johnnies’ effort.
At the seven minute mark the Johnnies demonstrated their selflessness — making six passes, resulting in a Champagnie 15-footer from the left corner and a 30-23 lead. After a Creighton score Dunn drove into the paint then fed Williams on the left wing who hit his third three pointer of the half.
With under 30 seconds to play in the half and the crowd counting down the seconds to a shot clock violation, Champagnie hit a three from the top of the circle with under five seconds on the clock. The Red Storm were up 45-37 at the half. After a review of the shot it was determined to be a two-pointer and the Red Storm went into the half up 44-37.
At the half Dunn had scored 11 points and Williams had nine on three three-pointers.
A fan said, “we’ve been here before.” That fan was talking about, in particular, the home Seton Hall game, when the Hall started the second half in a full court press, and quickly erased a Johnnies’ 13-point lead.
Marcellus Earlington was back in the game after sitting through most of the first half with two fouls. Earlington quickly did what he does best, attack the basket on strong drives and hitting the offensive boards. However, he also committed his third foul early in the second half. Coach Anderson left him in and it paid dividends. In the first four and a half minutes he scored four points on short jumpers in the paint.
Meanwhile point guard Marcus Zegarowski, the Blue Jays second leading scorer averaging 15.8 points a game, seemed to be frustrated. He handled the ball well and hit a few front court teammates for layups, but he had not yet found the range for his jump shot as the Johnnies were pressuring him all over the court.
On one sequence Zegarowski stole a Johnnies pass and raced down the court, which appeared to be a certain score for Creighton, who had clawed back into the game, behind by just three.
However, Champagnie would have none of it.
He hustled back, caught up with Zegarowski and snuffed his layup attempt, grabbed the loose ball and fed a racing Dunn for a layup and a 50-45 lead. Suddenly, what seemed to become a one-point deficit for Creighton ballooned to five points in the matter of seconds.
With 14:50 to play and up 54-51, Johnnies pressure on an inbounds pass, caused Creighton to take a time out or lose the ball.
It was emblematic of the Johnnies pressure defense. Creighton did respond, after the timeout, with Denzel Mahoney drawing and hitting two foul shots. The lead was down to one and St. John’s fans were, once again, reliving past games this season when the team competed but just could not hit the timely shot to pull out a victory.
With 13:38 to play, after two Johnnies shots rimmed out, Damien Jefferson, who led the Blue Jays with 20 points, tipped in a Ballock miss and the Creighton comeback was complete.
They led by one.
The Johnnie, who hit the three that put the Red Storm back in front for good, was senior Nick Rutherford, a streaky shooter.
Thirty seconds later, after a Sears rebound, Williams hit another three and the Johnnies were off to the races.
Caraher took down a contested rebound and fed Figueroa for an open three in the right corner and the Johnnies were up 63-56 lead with 11 minutes to play.
Caraher, who scored nine points in the game, all on mid-range jumpers, responded to three free throws by Christian Bishop with a fall away 10-footer from the left wing and the Johnnies were up 65-59 with 10 minutes to play, holding Creighton off.
The Johnnies would have a larger lead but were missing free throws, two by Sears and two by Figueroa. A fan pleaded, “Bend your knees, bend your knees” as all four attempts, with little arc on the shot, hit the back of the rim. Would these free throws bite the Red Storm in such a tight game?
After two Ty-Shon Alexander free throws closed the lead to four, the Johnnies had the ball with four seconds to shoot, inbounding the ball. Dunn charged across the paint from right to left to take the pass and hit a 12-footer for a 67-61 lead.
After a timeout at the 7:31 mark and a six-point lead, the game was still up in the air.
Then they put the game on ice with four three-pointers in a little over a minute. LJ Figueroa, Greg Williams (again), Greg Williams (one more time!) and Julian Champagnie exploded from beyond the arc.
With 4:59 to play, and the crowd, mainly in white, shouting and cheering, the Red Storm was suddenly up 84-64.
Both teams emptied their benches with under two minutes to play and the Johnnies finished with a confidence boosting 91-71 victory.
On the way out a loyal fan stated, “Maybe Anderson and the team will get that winning season we are all rooting for.” it is still possible; and 10-year old Joseph clearly needs to attend more games for good luck.
Williams and Dunn
The Red Storm has been waiting for a breakout game by Greg Williams. His usual stellar defense was there as well as four rebounds and two steals. That was expected. What was not expected was hitting seven out of 10 three-point attempts, three in the first half and four in the second.
While Williams was hitting from long range, Dunn was attacking the basket, consistently beating Blue Jay guards to the rim. He had ten assists and only two turnovers, while being the primary ball handler during his 31 minutes of play. Hitting on seven out of thirteen field goal attempts, Dunn was the second leading scorer on the team with 19 points.
The Johnnies have been looking for someone to take the role of long range shooter since Mustapha Heron went down several games ago and is now out for the season. Did they find that person in Greg Williams?
Rotation becoming clear
Williams, Dunn, L.J. Figueroa and Julian Champagnie all played more than thirty minutes. Earlington sat most of the first half out with foul trouble, played eight minutes of the second half and contributed. Roberts left with an injury.
The others all played clear and significant roles in the game.
Nick Rutherford continues to play a significant role as a high energy, defensive specialist off the bench.
When Creighton was having some success feeding frontcourt players under the basket, it was Damien Sears to the rescue providing toughness and timing on defense. He also hit a nice turnaround as he backed a defender in towards the basket.
David Caraher provided 24 minutes of competitive play, contributing nine points and taking down three rebounds.
Refining defense: not steals, pressure defense
St. John’s, when successful, refines its defense for the opponent. The team is averaging 9.9 steals per game this year, but today’s defense was not about turnovers.
Though only accumulating five steals, the defensive strategy was to make every Bluejay shot uncomfortable. The Blue Jays came into the game making 38% of the three point attempts. During the game on February, Creighton hit 35% of their shots. On March first, the Blue Jays made four out of 27 from deep (14 percent). What happened?
After the game Coach Anderson summarized, “I thought our guys took pride on defense… You have got to be with them and make them uncomfortable”. Only seven turnovers for Creighton? There were 23 missed threes by Creighton and, except for the first 10 minutes of the second half, the Johnnies held their own on the defensive boards.
Big East Honor Roll accolades were given Greg Williams Jr. (one of the five Honor Roll players) and Julian Champagnie (Freshman of the Week).
A win over the Jays builds confidence. Maybe the second time around is a time of improvement.
The Johnnies have now played follow up games with seven of their nine opponents in the Big East. In those follow up games the team is 3-4. In six of the seven games they performed more competitively the second time around. It was only the second game with Seton Hall that found them less competitive.
Coming up: one away game at Butler, who has lost four of their last six and a home game against Marquette, who has lost four of the last five.
The Johnnies have gone 2-3 in their last five.
Did they find a reliable shooter in Greg Williams? He has shown promise intermittently through the second half of the season. Rasheem Dunn has continued attacking the basket successfully and drawing fouls. Even more significant, he is cutting down on his turnovers.
As one fan said before the game began, “I am not ready to give up on this year.”
With only a few games left, neither is the team.