“Did we overate our team or are we just playing down to opponents?”
It was a predominant question on fan’s minds. The follow up question was obvious. Due to two consecutive subpar performances, what will make a difference?
Two fans stated get Joel Soriano involved. Today. Too many challenges coming up to wait any longer.
Miles Coleman of the NJIT Highlanders opened the scoring with a three at 19:19 in the first half. At 18:00 Posh Alexander hit a three from the right wing assisted by Montez Mathis. The favor was returned as, at 16:45 of the half. Mathis stole the ball from Highlander Matt Faw and passed to Alexander. Cutting towards the basket, Alexander led Montez with a pass to a layup and a 5-3 Red Storm lead.
Shortly afterwards Joel Soriano, whom fans were hoping would step forward in a big way this afternoon, stood his ground on a Highlander drive, hands high in the air. Although he did not block the shot, he caused the Highlander to redirect his shot, which missed. However, NJIT was playing aggressive defense, registering three blocks and two steals in the first five minutes of play.
The Highlanders went on a 6-0 run taking the lead at 9-5 on a layup by the player who ended as the high scorer for the game, Dylan O’Hearn.
The Johnnies went scoreless for over three minutes, until Julian Champagnie made a layup. A layup by Dylan Addae Wusu tied the score at the 13:05 mark of the half. NJIT responded with a five-point run, once again taking the lead 14-9.
Stef Smith began contributing with a three followed by a steal and a dunk. For the remainder of the half the teams took turns taking the lead only to give it up. With eight seconds to go an Alexander steal and layup extended the Red Storm lead to five.
A nice cushion to take into the second half?
Falling asleep on defense the Red Storm allowed a long three by O’Hearn with no time left and took a two point lead into the half.
At the half, the shooting percentages were an identical 41%.
The Johnnies led in assists (nine to seven), rebounds (20 to 13) and steals (nine to seven), but NJIT hit a higher percentage of threes at 38.5 percent. Many of these successful attempts were from one of the corners, an Achilles heel in the Johnnies defense all year.
Joel Soriano had a good start in the first half — 3/3 and five rebounds — and looked ready to continue his success in the second half. Soriano made two free throws, then a dunk in the first two and a half minutes. Then nothing more for the half.
In past games, the team was able to engage Soriano at the beginning of a half only to forget about him as an offensive force as the game wore on. Such was the case for the rest of the second half. (But then... we will get to that.)
The Johnnies build a 16-point lead midway through the half on a Stef Smith three. Instrumental in what was a 10-0 run were three blocks by Esahia Nyiwe. The Highlanders were learning that easy layups were no longer to be taken for granted with Nywie on the court.
Just as the Johnnies were getting comfortable with their lead, Coach Anderson took Alexander, Champagnie and Mathis off the court. It was at the 11:00 mark and ignited a 21-5 run by the Highlanders, combined with massive offensive struggles and turnovers by the Red Storm.
And that left the two teams somehow tied at the end of regulation.
The Red Storm defense tightened, with Mathis focused on holding high scorer O’Hearn to no points in the overtime period. It was straight man-to-man and the Highlanders found themselves unable to find open shots, taking missing three shots from thirty feet from the basket. Only James Lee scored while Soriano shined, scoring five points early on in the overtime to lead the Johnnies to victory.
All About Defense
After the game Coach Anderson stated, “pressure defense is a gamble and you have to be able to rotate to get back into position. You see the guys flying around on the floor. We’re scrambling to pick them up and our rotations were so much better.”
What else assisted in the Johnnies’ defense? The role big men Joel Soriano and Esahia Nyiwe played under the basket.
Soriano challenged Highlander shooters when they did break through the Red Storm pressure. He did not block a lot of shots but caused NJIT shooters to adjust their shots. When Soriano was not in, Nyiwe demonstrated impeccable timing. In a short span of a few minutes, he blocked three shots during the impressive Johnnies run in the middle of the second half as the Red Storm built their 16-point lead.
Posh Alexander added, “we’ve lacked on defense a lot. I want to see us playing that defense for forty minutes.”
But there is a time for pressure defense that results in turnovers and a time for the lock down defense that emphasizes position and a tight man to man. In the overtime period that is what stood out. The Highlanders were forced to eat up much of their 30 seconds to shoot and on three occasions had to settle for exceedingly long jump shots, none of which they made.
There is still work to do on defense but the ability to lockdown is there.
Poor shooting plus high turnovers means struggle
St. John’s hit 39% of its field goal attempts and 21% of attempted threes. Only one Johnnie, Smith, made more than one three and his percentage was 40% (2/5). Only Soriano had a field goal percentage above 50%. To the team’s credit, recognizing they were off target, they did not launch a lot of threes; only 32 percent of their shots were from deep. In comparison the Highlanders took 40% of their shots from three point land.
St. John’s committed 18 turnovers with three guards, Addae-Wusu, Alexander and Smith having three each. Many of the turnovers were not caused by Highlander pressure. They were caused by sloppy and, at times, overly aggressive play by the Johnnies.
On a positive note, the Johnnies did win the rebound battle (51-39) led by Champagnie with 10 and Soriano with nine. St. John’s also continued to assist on a high percentage of the team’s baskets (21 of 28). This is very good.
The Red Storm need to tighten up. Cutting back on careless play on offense is a starter. Pushing the ball, particularly after steals, is exciting and can be rewarding. Knowing when to pull back and slow things down is, at times, necessary.
Big Man Soriano is a key
As the game began, fans commented that NJIT was “taller than we are. We need to make Joel Soriano a part of the offense today.”
Soriano stepped up. His stat line shows it; he scored 16 points on excellent 6/8 shooting, several times with a hook shot as he backed towards the basket. Soriano also took down nine rebounds in 24 minutes of play.
Most importantly he stepped forward in overtime, leading the team to victory with five points and a strong presence.
As future opponents scout the Johnnies they will note Soriano’s skills and will have to plan to guard him carefully, opening up more opportunities for teammates, particularly Champagnie, to get open shots from the floor.
The day the Johnnies have both looked forward to is coming on December 3rd — against fourth ranked Kansas. The match up looks difficult. The Jayhawks are tall and skilled. The are coming off an upset defeat and will be looking to “right the ship.”
Will the Johnnies play up to an opponent with focused play? Will the team find a way for Champagnie to step up his game to a performance similar to what he had against Indiana? Will focused play on offense and defense cut back on unforced turnovers and missed defensive assignments. Just days to prepare.