Forty-five minutes before the start of the game St. John’s managers were feeding a quartet of Montez Mathis, Rafael Pinson, Tareq Coburn and Aaron Wheeler. Preparing for the rims in the first game at Madison Square Garden this season, the St. John’s quartet shot around from three-point range starting with the left corner then around an arc to the right corner and back.
No one was hitting consistently, although Mathis seemed to have the most success. If the team’s fortunes were dependent on long distance shooting, this pregame shooting drill left questions about their success. About 10 minutes later Posh Alexander, Dylan Addae-Wusu and Stef Smith joined them. But where was Julian Champagne? No one knew.
The Johnnies were not hitting their jumpers in practice. The team went into the locker room and the starting lineup was posted: Alexander, Wheeler, Mathis, Addae-Wusu and Esahia Nyiwe.
Then the word spread that leading scorer, Julian Champagnie was out, following Covid protocols. And the team was not shooting well in pregame warm-ups. Still fans were confident.
No one scored until Wheeler hit a three from the left corner at the 18:49 mark. The Panthers jumped ahead on a layup, and a Jamarious Burton shot increased the lead to 6-3, but Addae-Wusu tied the score with a three-pointer from the left wing — a slow start for both teams.
The teams exchanged baskets until a nine point run for a 20-11 Red Storm lead; the run began with a deep three by Stef Smith. Pittsburgh was collapsing inside to harass Johnnie drivers and the Red Storm were finding open shooters. It seemed like the Johnnies had found an answer for the Panther defense.
A five-point run by Pittsburgh closed the gap. Coburn entered the game and hit a three from the left wing and order appeared restored. The Johnnies were up 26-18 with eight minutes to play. The scoring was spread with Pinzon, Smith and Coburn hitting threes.
During a media timeout at 7:40 a female fan noted, “Champagnie has Covid and the rest of the team is sitting on the bench maskless. Why aren’t the players protecting themselves and their teammates? This really troubles me.” It was noted that several, but not all of the Red Storm coaches, were wearing masks while on the bench during the game. The cheer squad and dance team participants all wore masks. It was an uncomfortable but good point being raised in a time of uncertainty.
Once again the Panthers fought back. For the final eight minutes, the lead remained between five and two.
The Panthers never tied the game up, but the Johnnies were unable to distance themselves. One problem was the team’s tendency to miss the first then make the second of free throw attempts and a fan moaned, “this is embarrassing.”
Posh Alexander hit Joel Soriano with a dunk to bring the lead to five as the half wound down.
But not for long.
With fans celebrating the play with the most enthusiasm of the day, the defense relaxed and Femi Odakale drove the length of the court for a layup and the lead was down to two at the half.
A fan stated, “it was a nice play, Posh to Soriano, but the team did not play defense afterwards. Hope that layup they allowed does not come back to haunt us at game’s end.”
But there it was — a layup as time was running out in the half.
Halftime statistics showed the Red Storm with sizable advantages in steals (six to one) and shooting percentage (41% to 36%) and had fewer turnovers; the Johnnies had four in the first half while Pittsburgh had 11, The Panthers only led in one category – rebounding, and by a two-rebound margin, 14-12.
Johnnie fans also noted something encouraging. Against the big front line of the Panthers Soriano was scoring and holding his ground on defense. In the first half he scored eight points, took down four rebounds and had a blocked shot. All in a partially played half.
Would the Johnnies be ready to extend their lead into the second half?
The half started well. Alexander drove hard to the basket, saw an open Nywie under the basket and hit him for a wide open dunk. In an odd move, a few minutes into the second half the referees declared a Coburn two in the first half was reviewed and adjusted to a three pointer. The Johnnies now led by six.
There was no scoring for the next two and a half minutes. There were blocks, missed dunks and steals on both sides.
Initiated by a Soriano steal a Mathis to Alexander back to Mathis fast break increased the lead to seven at the 15-minute mark. A little breathing room, fans thought.
It was not to continue; a Burton three at the twelve minute mark put Pittsburgh in the lead for the first time since the middle of the first half.
The lead did not last long. Soriano having his finest game of the year hit a jumper eighteen seconds later and St. John’s was once again ahead – this time by one.
Jumpers by Alexander and O’Mar Stanley extended the lead to four with nine minutes to play.
But the Panthers kept battling.
Once again they took the lead by one with two minutes to play... and the Red Storm experienced a period of devastating free throw shooting. Alexander missed two out of three free throws, and Mathis missed the front end of a one and one that could have cushioned the Red Storm’s lead.
With eight seconds to play Addae-Wusu went to the line needing to hit two free throws and he did. The Garden erupted. The Johnnies were going to pull it out.
But just like the end of the first half, with seconds to play the Red Storm allowed a Panther — this time Burton — to drive the length of the floor and to hit a six-footer from the left of the circle for a victory.
Defense in the waning seconds of both periods doomed the Johnnies.
The need for foul shooting practice is more notable after this game.
The Johnnies shot five for 12 from the line before Addae-Wusu’s last free throws, making one for two every times they were awarded free throws (with the exception of Alexander missing two out of three late in the game).
The Panthers shot 82 percent from the line hitting on 23 out of 28. It was a 16-point advantage in a two point win.
The foul shooting question is deeper. Why were the Johnnies receiving only 14 free throw attempts and while the Panthers went to the line for twenty eight shots? The first answer is that the Panthers made the front end of their one and one efforts. But that does not account for the full discrepancy.
The Johnnies only took seven threes in the second half as compared to 11 in the first half. The Johnnies had nine assists in the first half and six in the second.
The mentality in the second half was increasingly attack the basket. The St. John’s attack put up shots that did not fall, as the Panther frontline defended physically and left very few easy baskets. A careful analysis needs to be made why a more attacking offense drew fewer foul shot opportunities.
Pittsburgh was a worthy opponent
The Panthers came into the Garden with a losing record but had recently been playing credibly with one point losses to Minnesota and Virginia. Their two big men were very good. Mouhamadou Gueye was graceful and an excellent shooter, particularly from the foul line. He hit six for six from the line, one less point than the entire Johnnies team had from the line.
The Red Storm bigs had trouble staying with him. Six foot nine inch John Hugley picked up two fouls quickly in the first half and was on the bench for most of it. When he returned for second half play, the Panthers began to dominate the boards and he, despite only playing for 25 minutes, led them in rebounding, and made life more difficult for Soriano in the second half.
The Johnnies were missing their leading scorer Julian Champagnie, whose long range shooting may have brought the Pirates out of the packed in defense that stymied St. John’s drives.
The Panthers were also very good at getting back on defense. Red Storm fast breaks which were stymied by Panthers covering up after missing a shot or losing the ball. Against other teams in non-conference play, the Johnnies would have earned a few more layups.
The Johnnies had their best success in the middle of the first half with primarily second teamers playing. Why? There was more ball movement, as multiple passes preceded many of the threes made by the Red Storm players. In a five minute span, Pinzon assisted on three jumpers by Johnnies as well as hitting a three of his own during the Johnnies spurt when they built up an eleven-point lead.
In the second half the movement was more dribbling and less passing with Alexander and Mathis leading the often unsuccessful assault.
When the Johnnies face Big East opponents they can anticipate facing disciplined defenses that will pack the paint and get back on defense to cover their fast break attempts.
Joel Soriano comes up “big”
His end of game statistics were impressive. In 30 minutes of play he scored 10 points, took down nine rebounds and had four blocked shots and a steal.
He also stood his ground under the basket causing Panthers to alter their drives towards the Red Storm basket. Unfortunately, he joined the poor Johnnies free throw shooters, hitting two out of four attempts.
Soriano scored eight of his 10 points in the first half. His lesser production in the second half may have been the fact that Hugley of Pittsburgh was back in the game. On one play Soriano was able to position himself to make a jump hook that, with more practice, could become a reliable weapon for the Red Storm.
Did he earn his starting role back?
The Big East schedule begins with a home game against Butler on December 23, 2021.
The Johnnies need to find a way to shake this game off, and that may be mentally difficult. This was a winnable game even without their high scorer playing. They need to remember that, despite the odds on the game, Pittsburgh had some skilled players and a stifling game plan on defense.
The mindset of moving the ball with multiple passes and using the high post to work off of may lead to a more diversified attack. The Red Storm guards cannot have consistent success with a framework of attacking defenses that get back and set up to defend. Butler will, like Pittsburgh, put an emphasis on getting back.
In the first half the Johnnies committed four turnovers. In the second half they committed 10, which kept them from scoring opportunities.
Getting Champagnie back and his long range shooting will be helpful, depending on when he becomes eligible. Is there someone else who can hit from long range? The key to this season may be finding another one or two players who can hit the jumper and make defenses adjust.