A confident crowd gathered at Carnesecca Arena for an anticipated continuation of Julian Champagnie/ Posh Alexander’s exceptional performances, while wondering who would step forward to assist the dynamic duo.
Tareq Colburn’s absence was noted; no one knew where he was. Fans expressed their expectation that Colburn was the third needed spark on offense that the team needed.
Happily, Montez Mathis stepped up to carry the supporting role. And despite some shooting struggles, Posh Alexander and Julain Champagnie — named to this week’s Big East Honor Roll — did enough to push the Red Storm to a double-digit win.
Early on, a Mathis feed to Champagnie in the corner was returned to a cutting Mathis for a layup and a 2-0 lead. Fairleigh Dickinson, with their freshman-dominated young lineup, took the ball out and committed a second turnover. Mathis’ steal and his subsequent feed to Joel Soriano for a dunk and a 4-0 lead at the 19-minute mark. The Johnnies were rolling.
The Johnnies’ pressure defense caused five Knights turnovers in the first four minutes of the game. After a 7-0 run highlighted by a Mathis drive into the paint and a layup, the Johnnies led 24-11 at the 12:52 mark.
Aaron Wheeler stepped on the floor and quickly contributed with a three from the left wing then a steal leading to another Mathis layup at the 11:10 mark.
Mathis left the game at the eight minute mark with the Johnnies up 33-18.
Up 37-21, the Red Storm went into a zone defense. The Knights quickly found an opening in the zone and hit a three. Wheeler made a nice entry pass to Soriano, who was fouled going to the basket. He made two out of two free throw attempts. However, the Johnnies defense under the zone was not as effective as before. The Knights outscored St. John’s by seven to two to drop the Red Storm lead to 11, 39-28.
With 3:36 to play in the half Champagnie only had four points, shooting 2/9. His teammates were picking him up. At the half, Stef Smith had nine points, Soriano had eight and Mathis seven as the Red Storm led 45-32.
The Red Storm made a concerted effort to feed Soriano underneath as the half began. Mathis assisted on a Soriano layup and the Johnnies led 47-32.
However, Fairleigh Dickinson guards were breaking down Johnnie defenders. As teammates tried to cover the drives, the Knights found openings in the corners for wide-open threes and began to convert them.
Champagnie still did not have a three, passing up opportunities to keep the ball moving. There was a restlessness in the crowd as the Knights got within a basket of cutting the Red Storm lead to single digits. Coburn's wishing smooth stroke from three-point land was missed.
At 15:44 of the half, Champagnie took a three from the left wing. He was fouled on the miss, and made 3/3 foul shots; the St. John’s lead was back up to 14. The lead mushroomed to 22 after St. John’s pressure in the backcourt led to a 10-second violation for the Knights, followed by a Wheeler layup and foul shot. A sigh of relief was heard amidst the crowd with 10 minutes to play.
Despite the margin, it was not cruise control time.
The Knights attacked the Johnnies basket and a nine-point run over the next three minutes reducing the Johnnies’ lead to 13. Stef Smith hit three free throws and Champagnie finally hit an open three from the right wing, but these were negated by three three-pointers by the Knights.
At the official TV timeout with 3:59 to play, the Johnnies led by nine. St John’s remained in their huddle much longer than the Knights. Play continued with the Knights having the ball but it was clear that the Johnnies were ready. There would be no more open Knight players for uncontested jump shots.
A tight man-to-man with quick switching was clearly in place. Fairleigh Dickinson went one for five on jump shots for the remainder of the game as the Red Storm came away with a 87-74 victory.
Champagnie and Alexander lead despite shooting struggles
Neither of the team’s stars could hit a long range jumper. Between them, they went one for nine on three point attempts. But they both scored by attacking the glass.
Each finished the game leading the team with 17 points on drives to the basket and put backs. Champagnie’s three free throws made in the middle of the second half stemmed a Knight run which had dropped the lead to 11 points.
Champagnie took down 10 rebounds while 6’ 1” Alexander took down seven. When the Knights were making their run in the second half, Alexander stood out, scoring 11 of his 17 points.
All five starters in double figures.
The scoring totals of the five starters ranged from 12 for Soriano to 17 for Champagnie and Alexander. In addition, in just 14 minutes of play, Wheeler added eight points, while taking down three rebounds and assisting on two baskets by teammates. He has demonstrated a three-point stroke as the season progresses. Can he continue to improve?
Addae-Wusu hit 2/3 from three point range and led the team with five assists. Will he, and Wheeler, provide the Johnnies with an added shooter from long distance?
Missing Coburn’s three-point shooting contributed to the Johnnies below average 23% shooting from deep. The team adjusted in the second half taking only nine three point shots compared to 13 in the first half — attacking the basket instead of leaning on jump shots. Johnnies went to the free throw line 19 times in the second half, and, for the game, made 76 percentage.
The team assisted on a majority of its field goals in this game, 22/30. It is clear that the Johnnies are playing as a team with little one-on-one play even by the stars.
Let’s Talk Defense.
The defense at the beginning of the game was impactful. The Knights did not get a shot off until almost two minutes had passed in the game. The Knights had five turnovers in the first four minutes of the game, all due to Red Storm pressure.
FDU had 13 turnovers in the half. But the Johnnies also allowed the Knights to shoot 50% on threes. As the game progressed, FDU became more and more able to successfully hit the open teammate until the time out with four minutes to play. After the time out the Johnnies tightened up and there were fewer open opportunities as the game wound down. They hit 1/5 jump shots over the last four minutes.
The team does not use a zone defense often. Taking a large lead in the first half gave the coaching staff the opportunity to work on a zone defense as an alternative. With the zone being used the Knights scored seven points in a minute, shooting the Red Storm out of the zone; it needs more work.
Alexander and Mathis on the court picking up opposing guards when they cross the half court line creates destabilizing pressure, resulting results in opponents taking seconds off the 30 second clock to set up a play.
Joel Soriano has picked up driving opponents when teammates are broken down. Addae-Wusu had demonstrated an ability to provide pressure defense and has been effective against taller opponents.
The talent to be an impactful defensive team is present. The season is still early, and the team needs to learn to mesh together both on the offensive and defensive end.
The team has two games against lesser-ranked opponents and then a game against Kansas, ranked number three in the AP poll. The Jayhawks are tall and strong and added a premier point guard this past year in former Arizona State guard Remy Martin.
The Red Storm must not look ahead to Kansas; the team needs to get more used to each other, more repetition. The team played excellent defense the first five minutes of the game and the last four minutes. What went right during these periods of time should be focused on as the Johnnies battle St. Francis and NJIT this week.
Integrating Tareq Colburn and freshman Rafael Pinzon, when they are able to return, is critical to the long range success of the team.
The Johnnies have shown a balance in their scoring in all games except the Indiana loss when Julian Champagnie led the way. Stef Smith has emerged as an offensive contributor. Aaron Wheeler, though playing only 14 minutes, gave the Red Storm a spark that, if continued, may be able to bring an added offensive component to the team when the competition becomes more challenging.