It was 30 minutes before the tip off of the season opener against the Mississippi Valley State Delta Devils and seasoned St. Johns fans were talking about which of the newcomers would be most valuable to the current Red Storm team.
The first name that came up was Joel Soriano; the Johnnies have needed a big man with skills to score under the basket for a long time. He would provide offensive punch inside, and would require teams to defend Soriano opening the door for pitch outs for three point attempts.
The second name was Aaron Wheeler; the Johnnies would benefit from an athletic forward, particularly on defense and particularly when the schedule becomes challenging.
But the agreed-on name by all three Johnnies fans was Tareq Coburn – for his ability to shoot reliably from beyond the three-point arc.
One fan expressed concern about the Johnnies’ weak out-of-conference schedule which will have an impact if the Johnnies are on the cusp of consideration for an NCAA tournament berth.
In pregame warmups, the Johnnies broke out into an impressive three man weave in which each of the trio took the role of passer, rebounder and shooter. The movement was smooth and suggested that the Johnnies were ready to play a game focused on passing and assisting teammates for the most open shot when the game began.
The game was close to a sell out with St. John’s giving all fans an attractive red St. John’s hoodie to wear. The abundance of students at the game, who were boisterous throughout the game, was noted by all.
Starters: Julian Champagnie and Joel Soriano up front, with a backcourt of Posh Alexander, Montez Mathis and Stef Smith.
The Johnnies established themselves immediately.
Posh Alexander took the opening tip and aggressively attacked the basket, laying the ball in for a 2-0 lead at the five second mark. At 18:52, Julian Champagnie on a backdoor cut took a pass from Alexander and was fouled on his layup attempt. One of the best free throw shooters in the league, Champagnie hit 2/2 free throws and the Red Storm were up four to nothing. Soriano, fouled in the post, hit a free throw at 18:06 for a 5-0 lead.
A three by David Gordon of Mississippi Valley State cut the lead to two and then the Johnnies went on an 11-0 run over the next three minutes. Coach Anderson began substituting players, with Wheeler in for Soriano and Coburn in for Smith. The second team players performed as admirably as their starting teammates.
Coburn immediately demonstrated his value by nailing two threes in a minute and a half to put the Johnnies up by 24-7 at the 12:50 mark. Just after the second three one of the fans from the earlier discussion turned and gave me a thumbs up and I responded, “looks like you were right.”
Freshman O’mar Stanley entered the game and made his presence known as he backed down a defender and hit a three-foot turnaround for a 26-7 lead. Then two minutes later Wheeler drove to the basket, saw a cutting Stanley and passed to him for an easy layup. Everyone was contributing.
The hard charging Red Storm got careless on defense, as two layups by Mississippi State’s John Auger were poorly defended around the ten minute mark. However, this was a short term period of carelessness. Twenty seconds after Auger’s second layup, Coburn sprinted back on the defense and blocked a Delta Devils breakaway layup attempt.
Fans welcomed Dylan Addae-Wusu back, recovered from an ankle injury. He did not score in the half but made his presence known with his rebounding and defense. The half ended with the Johnnies leading 59-18.
A group of four seated together shared what stood out in their minds.
- the shooting percentage of 67.6 percent on 23/34 shooting. The two-point shooting was an astounding 19 for 22. Fans attributed this high percentage to the efforts of the entire team to hit the open man for high percentage shots.
- the scoring balance amidst the Johnnies players. At the half, Coburn and Champagnie had 10 points, Mathis had nine, and Alexander seven.
- the Red Storm were outrebounding the Delta Devils in the first half, though the Delta Devils had several players six foot eight or taller.
The Red Storm began the second half looking for Soriano underneath.
He was fouled at 19:39 and hitting two free throws. Soriano’s pressure on defense at the 19:15 mark caused Daniel Umoh of Mississippi Valley to miss a turnaround jumper.
At 16:56 of the half Alexander hit his first of three open three pointers in the half, demonstrating his work on improving his long range jumper.
Rafael Pinzon, enjoyed an nice effective sequence in the second half. At 13:09 he drove to the basket and passed to Coburn on the right wing for an open three. Shortly thereafter, he hit a driving Wheeler with a one-handed pass off a dribble for a Wheeler layup; then he followed with a three pointer of his own for a 93-39 Red Storm lead at the nine minute mark of the half.
Addae-Wusu, scoreless in the first half, made his first points with a layup at the 9:49 mark and later hit two three-pointers to demonstrate that his long range shot was back.
Walk-ons entered the game in the last two minutes with Artemios Gavalas hitting a foul shot from with 1:25 to play.
Defense: The Johnnies had nine steals and nine blocks and held the Delta Devils to 29 percent shooting.
The Delta Devils went 6/23 on three-point attempts — and 14/46 on two-point attempts. There were a few lapses in coverage by the Johnnies particularly in the middle of the first half when the Johnnies, in an offensive mindset, did not get back on defense.
On the whole, the defensive efforts with nine blocks and consistent defensive pressure led to many off balanced shots by Mississippi Valley, but the Red Storm were (once again) susceptible to the corner three when the Devils could break pressure.
Balanced Scoring: Six Johnnies scored in double figures, led by Champagne with 20 on 8 for 14 shooting. However, most impressive was Alexander scoring 18 points with seven assists and hitting four out of five three pointers.
Both freshmen – Stanley with 14 points on 7/7 from the field and Pinzon with seven points and five assists — were important contributors. Coburn, the fan’s choice before the game as the most important newcomer, hit three threes, scoring 13 points with three rebounds and two assists.
The continual substitution pattern by Coach Anderson found no Johnnie playing for more than 20 minutes and nine Johnnies on the court between 17 and 20 minutes.
Assists: The Johnnies had 30 assists on 45 field goals. They shot better than 50% on three-point attempts. Why so good? Because most of the three-point attempts were after teammates attacked the basket, drew the Delta Devil defense in, then hit the open teammate for a three attempt.
Alexander led the team with seven assists. Wheeler added four and Pinzon added five, doing their part with assists.
Will this high percentage of assisted baskets continue against stiffer competition? The team is off to a good start.
It is game one of a long season, and the Johnnies probably faced their weakest opponent. The Rhode Island scrimmage, which the team lost by two points, reminds fans that the real assessment of the team will come after the next two games, the first against a St. Peter’s team that lost a close game to VCU by three points on 11/9/21 and then a more challenging away game against Indiana University.
The team seems deeper than in the past.
One discussion with fans during the game against Mississippi Valley was that all 11 rotation players are good enough to be starters. As the season moves forward, their performances will dictate who gets the starting nod to join Champagnie and Alexander in the starting lineup.
Does Coburn deserve to be a starter or is he more valuable coming off the bench to provide his accurate shooting touch when the team can use a lift?
Esahia Nyiwe showed a quickness running the floor at 6’10” and an ability to deter shooting efforts by opponents. Are these skills best used coming off the bench?
Addae-Wusu showed that he is back to his normal combative self with hints of added accuracy to his long range shooting.
With the balance and skills of the eleven players in the rotation Coach Anderson may have the luxury of playing different starting lineups to match up with the strengths of opponent’s lineups.
The Johnnies opponent on Saturday, November 13th, Saint Peter’s, is a significant step up from the Mississippi Valley team. Will all 11 players stand out as they did against Mississippi State?
If they all have their moments of playing well and the team concentrates on getting back on defense and being aware of the open three point corner shots, the team should do well.