Meeting with fans at the 1870 Court, someone asked who — aside from Julian Champagnie and Posh Alexander — on the Red Storm is likely to make a difference for the team this year. The first response was Aaron Wheeler, due to his length and athleticism, as fans looked to more challenging games ahead. One fan pointed out that Wheeler seems to be hitting his long range jumpers in rhythm and could take some pressure off of Julian Champagnie.
The second Johnnie on everyone’s mind was Montez Mathis, particularly for his defensive ability. One fan shared, “if only he had a reliable jump shot, he would be a second-team Big East player.”
Upon entering Carnesecca Arena and watching the St. Francis Terriers warm up, the Terriers impressed as accurate long-range shooters in warm up drills. They hit eight consecutive three-point jumpers in one segment of warmups and it was clear that the Red Storm better cover jump shooters in the corners because this Terrier team could shoot.
Before a sparse crowd at tip off and with no student band present, it was a welcome sight to see Tareq Colburn ready to play.
But concern rose when Posh Alexander was seen on the sidelines.
In place of Alexander, Dylan Addae-Wasu got the starting call. Rafael Pinzon also was bench bound due to injury.
The game started with Joel Soriano dunking the ball, assisted by Addae-Wasu. St. Francis forward Patrick Emilien hit a layup, tying the score; the Terriers went into a full court press, which the Johnnies easily broke through.
At 19:04 Stef Smith passed to Champagnie in the left corner for an open jumper and a 4-2 score. All seemed fine for Red Storm fans, even without Alexander. Two scores in the first minute, assisted by two Johnnies. A weaker opponent and an opportunity for other Johnnies to demonstrate their skills.
But there was the three-point shooting ability the Terriers had demonstrated in warm-ups.
The Johnnies did not score again until Mathis hit a layup at the 14:01 mark of the game. In the five minutes between St. John’s scores Tedrick Wilcox Jr. of the Terriers hit four three-pointers sandwiched around an Emilien layup. Even with Montez’s layup the Johnnies were behind by 10, 16-6.
During the television timeout under the 16 minute mark, the student band finally arrived and the stands were filling up. The Johnnies were breaking through the Terrier press but becoming sloppy when entering the front court with rushed, off balanced shooting and some sloppy passing.
Aaron Wheeler entered the game and exerted himself with two blocks, the second which led to a fast break. Champagnie found Coburn open at the top of the key, who hit a three, and the deficit was cut to six at 19-13 with 12 to play in the half. The Red Storm defense tightened, and a Colburn layup and a Wheeler dunk tied the score at 19. The tie didn’t last long.
The Johnnies went scoreless over the next three minutes while three different Terriers hit threes for a nine-point lead. The Red Storm was now aware that it was not simply Wilcox who could hit from long distance.
As the Terriers continued to make threes the Johnnies continued to miss. Champagnie did not have his long range touch, but Mathis was attacking the basket on the way to a 20 point game. Despite the porous defense and turnovers, the Red Storm scrambled back to a 40-38 deficit at the half.
At the half the Johnnies were shooting at 52%, but only at 25% (2/8) on three-point attempts. In contrast, the Terriers were hitting 52% of their three pointers (11/21) on their way to shooting 45% for the half.
With such a discrepancy in long range shooting it was surprising that the Johnnies were only two points behind at the half.
Mathis led the Red Storm in scoring in the first half with 10 points followed by Champagnie with eight. All of their baskets, except for Champagnie’s jumper in the first minute of the game, were on drives or put backs off offensive rebounds.
Addae-Wusu did a competent job as a point guard for the game, in which he would log 35 minutes, but the Johnnies clearly missed Posh Alexander’s leadership.
If the first half was a half of three-point shooting, the second half was dominated by layups.
Aaron Wheeler replaced Joel Soriano in the starting five as the second half began. The Johnnies were making a conscious effort to deny the open three point shot. St. Francis countered by driving hard to the rim and hitting the offensive boards.
The St. Francis lead swelled to ten at 48-38 on three layups and two free throws. In less than two minutes the Terriers took down four offensive rebounds. One fan called out, in frustration, “this is the worst rebounding team ever”.
Often out of position for the long rebounds (the Terriers’ threes bounced far from the usual area under the basket where rebounders gather), Johnnie defenders were leaping for an unreachable ball which they could only tap away. The Terriers seemed a step ahead of the Johnnies in retrieving these taps.
At 10:00 Champagnie dunked the ball off of a nice feed by Smith to stop the run. Shortly thereafter Smith made a layup and, after a Terrier turnover, he hit a three cutting the lead to one at 48-47 with 16:09 to play. Addae-Wasu unleased a half court pass to Mathis for a breakaway dunk and the Johnnies were in the lead for the first time since the opening minute of the game.
They had stopped the Terriers from making threes, but the Terriers were now outrebounding the Johnnies 27 -14 for the game.
The Terriers continued to hit the offensive boards and an eight point run put them up by seven with 12:42 to play. Coach Anderson inserted a small lineup of Champagnie, Addae-Wusu, Coburn, Smith and Mathis, calling on it to pressure the Terriers all over the court.
Champagnie began to assert himself. He took a pass at the top of the key and hit a turnaround jumper but, after that, all his points were on drives to the basket. His layup at the 6:14 mark of the half put the Johnnies back in the lead and they never surrendered it on the way to a hard fault 76-70 victory. The Terriers of St. Francis gave the Johnnies a game from start to finish.
For the second straight game, the Johnnies shot dismally from long distance: 21%. Champagnie missed a couple and then, did not take a shot from three-point land. To his credit he recognized that he was off and found other ways to score, hitting a respectable 10 out of 20 attempts. Smith hit two out of three three-pointers but also shied away from the long range shot unless wide open.
What role did missing Posh Alexander and Raphael Pinzon play in these two poor three-point shooting games? Pinzon missed two games and, although a freshman, he has demonstrated a calmness when handling the ball on the offensive end and has occasionally hit a three pointer himself.
Alexander has demonstrated an ability to free himself attacking the rim and has excellent court vision, hitting open teammates off of his drives. Without the ballhandlers, perhaps the shooters were not getting the ball in the right position at the right moment to shoot more effortlessly.
Addae-Wusu logged in 35 minutes during the game, mostly at the point guard position. He is a more than adequate playing this role, but 35 minutes is a lot, and at times it showed in the ballhandling.
It should be noted that with them out the team impressed with 19 assists on 33 made shots.
The Johnnies were out rebounded in the first half 18 to 11. By games end the discrepancy continued with St. Francis taking down 40 rebounds to the Johnnies 26. The three big men on the Johnnies (Soriano, Wheeler and Stanley) took down a total of four rebounds. Granted, the three only played a total of 34 minutes but, in contrast, guard Addae-Wasu led the Johnnies with seven rebounds in 35 minutes of play.
At times the problem was Johnnies coming over to defend when St. Francis attacked the basket. The Johnnies did have eight blocks during the game, led by Champagnie with four. The number of blocked shots is good but blocks often leave the defender out of position for rebounds.
The entire team needs to prioritize boxing their man out and going towards the boards on every shot by opponents.
Wheeler seemed to be playing well but, for some reason, only played 11 minutes. During the time he was in he shot three for three, with two rebounds and two blocks.
Defense, an Enigma
In the first half St. Francis shot 52% from three point land and 30% closer to the basket.
In the second half St. Francis took five three-point shots and missed them all. However, the Terriers shot 38 percent on non-three point attempts.
During the second half intermission the Johnnies took a couple of minutes longer to return to the floor, spending more time with a changed defensive strategy. It was all about focus.
In both halves there was effort on defense but, in the first half, the execution was lacking.
Give the Terriers credit. When the Johnnies came with a different strategy, taking away the open three-point attempt, St. Mary attacked the basket more aggressively.
The Johnnies have built a reputation for pressuring opponents all over the court successfully. Against the Terriers this made the difference. In the second half the press worked. St. Francis had 21 turnovers, 13 in the second half. The St. Johns pressure won the game for them.
The big question, at present, is: when will Posh Alexander return? If he is out a while, the Johnnies could find a way to be victorious against NJIT, but the Kansas game will truly be a challenge.
Will the Johnnies get the big men in sync?
Will Champagnie find his three point shot?
Stef Smith and Montez Mathis are stepping forward, playing significant roles. Will this continue?
Many questions for this, to date, enigmatic team. Have expectations been set too high?
The energy on the team is never in question. But there is work to be done in execution.