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St. John’s hangs on to defeat Marquette in regular-season finale; takeaways

Poor foul shooting almost dooms Johnnies; Defensive Steals Ensure the Victory

Figueroa and Champagnie go for the rebound
Wendell Cruz | Finish First Photos

“We are going to win this game,” one St. John’s ticketholder said confidently before the St. John’s Red Storm’s game against the Marquette Golden Eagles, “and beat Georgetown on Wednesday.”

Others felt that the matchups against the Marquette Golden Eagles were good, particularly with Nick Rutherford ready for the challenge on Senior Day in Madison Square Garden.

Along with Thomas O’Connell, Justin Cole and the injured Mustapha Heron, Rutherford was recognized for his contributions for and accomplishments with the Red Storm as a post grad during pre-game ceremonies.

Nick Rutherford, senior day
Wendell Cruz | Finish First Photos

For the game, he had a particularly important role. Rutherford is one of the few players in the Big East who is capable of making Big East leading scorer Markus Howard of Marquette work for his points.

Game recap: St. John’s wins 88-86

First Half

Julian Champagnie started the game jumping center with Josh Roberts still out. Other starters were Rutherford, LJ Figueroa, Greg Williams. Jr. and Marcellus Earlington for the final regular season game.

Wendell Cruz | Finish First Photos

Although 6’9” Marquette center Theo John won the tap, it went in the direction of Earlington, who outfought two Golden Eagles for the ball. The Johnnies looked ready to compete. Eighteen seconds later Champagnie, playing the post, took a pass and quickly redirected the ball to Williams on the right wing, who canned a jumper for a 2-0 Red Storm lead.

A minute later a Figueroa steal and a lead pass to Rutherford, who laid the ball in, increased the lead to 4-0 at the 18:33 mark.

The Johnnies were moving the ball quickly on offense and were defending with quickness, knocking the ball out of Marquette players hands. A Williams steal and a feed to Earlington, who attacked the basket and was fouled, led to two foul shots. Earlington made both and the lead was now 6-0.

Marcellus Earlington, hard to handle
Wendell Cruz | Finish First Photos

The Red Storm began pressing after made baskets and the Golden Eagles seemed unprepared. A pass out of bounds by Brendan Bailey led to a three by Williams and the Johnnies were up 9-0 at the 16:48 mark.

St. John’s held Marquette scoreless for the first four and a half minutes of the game while building what became a 12-0 lead.

A team that scores like Marquette is never out of things after a big run. In a period of two minutes, Marquette tied the score on a pair of Howard threes, an errant pass by Rasheem Dunn that resulted in a Sacar Anim layup and a layup by seven-footer Jayce Johnson. Johnson lead the way as the Golden Eagles’ forecourt began attacking the basket, taking down offensive rebounds when they were not tipping misses in.

With 11 minutes left in the half Johnson tipped in a miss and Marquette was in the lead for the first time. In the first four and a half minutes the Johnnies built a 12-0 lead. It took Marquette four and a half minutes to make up the difference and to take the lead.

David Caraher shoots
Wendell Cruz | Finish First Photos

The ebb and flow continued. David Caraher hit a 10-footer from the right wing tying the score. On the subsequent possession Greg Williams, Jr. intercepted a Golden Eagle pass and drove the length of the court for a dunk, demonstrating that his scoring would come from more than hitting perimeter jump shots.

The Johnnies were ahead 18-16. They never looked back.

Mustapha Heron greets the team coming back to the bench
Wendell Cruz | Finish First Photos

At an official’s timeout Mustapha Heron, dressed in street clothes, was first off the bench to congratulate Caraher for his shooting that was keeping the Johnnies in the game as Marquette was closing the gap and taking the lead.

A senior, who was honored along with Rutherford in pregame ceremonies, Heron has been an enthusiastic supporter of the young team through the thick and thin of the season.

The game remained close with Howard doing his best to keep Marquette within range. The Johnnies lead was three point, 22-19 after Howard was fouled on a three-point attempt and made all three foul shots.

After a Figueroa three, Rutherford stole the ball on two consecutive Golden Eagle possessions. One resulted in a Champagnie jumper and the second a lay-up of his own. Suddenly with six minutes to play the lead was 11 at 30-19.

Nick Rutherford makes a layup
Wendell Cruz | Finish First Photos

Over the first half the Johnnies shot 60.7 per cent from the field and hit 7/11 three-point tries. They had 10 steals to one for Marquette. Rutherford, Williams and Champagnie led the way as the Johnnies went into halftime with a 47-28 lead.

Second Half

Before the second half began, a St. John’s fan murmured, “We have been here before,” referring to having the lead but not being able to close out the game. A second fan agreed, “be ready for the pressure.”

No one knew if Marquette, inspired by a poor first half, would be able to rattle the Johnnies.

It was not an immediate turnaround for the Golden Eagles. St. John’s scored the first points of the half on a Figueroa dunk for a 21-point lead.

But something was different.

The Golden Eagles were no longer passing the ball around the cylinder as they did in the first half. They were attacking the basket on almost every possession. Anim, in particular, was effective to supplement the efforts of Howard. By the 17-minute mark of the second half, threes by Howard and then Greg Elliott had reduced the Johnnies lead to 14, 51-37. Plenty of time left in the game.

Greg Williams Jr. throws it down
Wendell Cruz | Finish First Photos

A Champagnie three and Williams second dunk of the game brought the lead back to 19 with 14 minutes to play. Fans were breathing a (premature) sigh of relief. The Johnnies had weathered the impact of a Marquette press that had disrupted but not broken the team.

Howard, Anim, and Elliott led the Golden Eagles back, slowly but consistently. While they were scoring the Johnnies did not lose their composure. They attacked the basket on offense, drawing fouls and going to the line.

Three times Champagnie was fouled and made one of two foul shots. The same for Figueroa. The Johnnies were giving up two or three points to the Golden Eagles and only scoring one point in response.

With the Johnnies hanging on to a seven point lead with 4:12 to play Rutherford was fouled, went to the line and broke the pattern of one successful and one missed attempt. The usually reliable Rutherford, having an outstanding game, missed both attempts. After a TV timeout, Howard hit a three from the left corner with Dunn’s hand in his face.

Mike Anderson, jacket off
Wendell Cruz | Finish First Photos

With 3:53 left, and a four point lead it was anyone’s game.

He had not done much to this point of the game but Marcellus Earlington stood tall. Driving across the key he was fouled on a lay-up attempt and broke the string of poor free throw shooting, converting both free throws for a six point lead.

With three minutes to play Dunn, copying Earlington, was fouled on a drive and made both of his free throws.

But Elliot and Howard were still scoring. Dunn, who had yet to register a field goal, as time was running down on the shot clock, attacked the basket from the right side and hit a layup. The Johnnies lead was back to five.

Rasheem Dunn drives
Wendell Cruz | Finish First Photos

The Johnnies finally made a defensive stop and a Champagnie layup with 1:17 to play increased the lead to 87-80. Six points by Anim and another one out of two free throws by Figueroa found the Johnnies up by two, with the ball and 44 seconds to play.

The Red Storm milked the clock and with two seconds to shoot Rutherford missed a three. It was Marquette ball.

Everyone was standing but one fan, head bowed, heads in her hands said, “I can’t look. I can’t.” Visions of the Xavier and Georgetown games at the Garden danced in her head. So many games, St. John’s had the game in hand, only to lose.

Markus Howard looking to carry the team
Wendell Cruz | Finish First Photos

Howard had 11 seconds to do his magic. He drove down the left side looking for a lay-up or a foul.

Coach Anderson constantly preaches that defense wins the game; today it was Champagnie and Williams who made the difference. Williams faced Howard, one on one, forcing Howard to his left, where he blew by Williams. As he went up toward his layup, Champagnie reached in and knocked the ball out of his hands, passing to Rutherford, who was immediately fouled.

But.

Both free throws were missed. The Golden Eagles’ Jamal Cain took down the rebound, and found himself pick-pocketed by Williams, sealing a dramatic 88-86 win and bringing a deep sigh of relief to our worried fan, who was told she could take her head out of her hands.

Ian Steere and Nick Rutherford share a hug
Wendell Cruz | Finish First Photos

Three Takeaways

Most Improved Players

Julian Champagne started at the beginning of the year and remained in the starting lineup into the beginning of the Big East calendar. Eventually replaced in the starting lineup by Rasheem Dunn, he was the first substitute off the bench and added a spark to the combo of LJ Figueroa and Mustapha Heron.

Returning to the starting lineup in mid February, Champagnie has emerged as more than just a spark. He is starting to emerge as a go-to guy”. During the game against Marquette Champagnie did not score until the 6:19 mark of the first half. Even so, he led led the team with 21 points on 7/16 shooting.

Champagnie also took down 12 rebounds, which was 37.5% of the team’s rebounds while playing a team-leading 35 minutes.

Champagnie fights three Eagles for a rebound
Wendell Cruz | Finish First Photos

Greg Williams, Jr. did not begin the season in the starting lineup but moved into this role around the time Mustapha Heron went out with an injury. Williams consistently played good defense and rebounded well for a guard.

Over the past three games Williams has averaged 16.3 points per game. Against Marquette his stat line was:

  • 17 points on 60% shooting
  • 3 rebounds
  • 3 assists
  • 5 steals
  • 1 block

Although dropping off a little in the past couple of games, Marcellus Earlington showed progress throughout the year and has established a role as an aggressive offensive player, particularly on the boards. He does need defensive refinement as his aggressive nature often gets him into foul trouble.

Foul Shots

There have been games the Johnnies shot over 90% in their foul shooting and then there are games like today.

When things were going well (first half) the Johnnies made 6/8 (75%) of their free throws. Not a large sample, but it certainly was an acceptable performance in the first half.

In the second half, when the extended full court pressure by Marquette sent the Johnnies to the line more frequently, the performance dropped to 54% made for the half. It was more likely that Red Storm players would make one out of two foul shots or miss both than make good on all their opportunities.

Was it pressure due to the sense of giving away what appeared to be an insurmountable lead?

Was it form or touch? Some Red Storm free throw shooters seemed to rush their free throws in the second half, an attempt perhaps to avoid pressure that could build up while taking ones time. A fan pointed out that some Johnny shooters do not bend their knees when shooting resulting in less arch on the shot and making it less likely that a shot, off slightly, might still fall through.

Whatever the reason, the team needs to focus, in the next few days on improving. In the Big East tournament, successful foul shooting can make the difference between moving forward in the tournament or calling it a season.

In the End the Defense Won the Game

Julian Champagnie and Justin Cole defend
Wendell Cruz | Finish First Photos
LJ Figueroa takes off with a steal
Wendell Cruz | Finish First Photos

Twelve Red Storm steals played a significant role in this victory. The nine in the first half led to many easy, breakaway baskets. In the second half, the Johnnies managed only one steal as Marquette fought its way back into the game.

But those last 15 seconds, when the game was on the line, it was the defense that came through. The team stood firm as Markus Howard attacked and the alertness of Julian Champagnie, knocking the ball out of his hands saved the day. Then a few seconds later a second steal by Williams sealed the game.

The Johnnies defense struggled greatly throughout the second half as Marquette relentlessly attacked. With Josh Roberts injured the Johnnies were missing their most impactful rim protector.

Julian Champagne made some nice plays on defense and Nick Rutherford certainly made Howard and other Golden Eagle guards work hard, particularly when trying to set up the offense but there were many breakdowns. Would a zone have worked? Or would a zone opened the door for Howard to have even more openings for his prolific three point shot?

Outlook

Thirty-on games have come and gone and the Johnnies are 16-15. Of the 15 losses, there was only one when the Johnnies truly did not compete: January 8, 2020 at Georgetown.

The Johnnies’ next game of the season is Wednesday evening against Georgetown. Georgetown has lost six straight with half of the losses being by double digits.

Their finale, against a Villanova squad competing for a share of the top spot in the Big East, found the Hoyas down in the first half by 17 points. They fought back and had a four-point lead with a minute to play. Despite six straight losses, they seem ready for the Johnnies.

If the Johnnies continue to shoot well as they did in the first half against Marquette and if work is done on the foul shooting, the Johnnies stand a good chance of moving to the second round of the tournament.

If Josh Roberts is able to return, it will help to provide a significant defensive presence to protect the basket and deter an aggressive offensive game plan that was successful for Marquette in the second half of today’s victory.