In some ways it was a must-win game for the Red Storm. Thanks to the COVID cancellations, they had not played for 17 days. For star scorer Julian Champagnie, his last game was 24 games ago.
The team had dealt with being sick, and were unable to practice as a team. On top of these challenges, three guards – Stef Smith, Raphael Pinzon and Tareq Colburn — were unavailable.
St. John’s last game was one to forget, the kind of game that looms large if a team is on the bubble. The Red Storm were playing a resurgent DePaul Blue Demon team with quality wins over Rutgers and Louisville this year. Would this be the right team to play for a restart to the season, or the kind of team that would pour more dirt on the Johnnies’ troubles?
Where was Posh Alexander in the starting five? At tip off, Julian Champagnie, Montez Mathis, Joel Soriano, Aaron Wheeler and Dylan Addae-Wusu stepped onto the court? The question remained until 16:34 mark of the half when Alexander replaced Wheeler with the Johnnies up 8-4.
For the first 10 minutes of the game, it was balanced scoring for the Johnnies. Of the five starters, Champagnie led the way with seven points followed by Addae-Wusu with five. All five starters had scored at least two points. Addae-Wusu led the team with three assists at the time. In addition, the Johnnies were actually out rebounding the taller Blue Demons seven to four. The rust from not playing for some time was not apparent.
On the whole, the Johnnies were not allowing too many open shots and Soriano and Wheeler were standing their ground under the basket.
With six minutes to play in the half, one play typified the Red Storm’s efforts.
The Johnnies picked up the defense, knocking away Blue Demon passes as they tried to pass into the lower paint area. Then Champagnie almost stole a ball but knocked it out of bounds.
The effort was not for naught. After a difficult inbounds play DePaul found time running out and leading scorer, Javon Freeman-Liberty, was forced to put up a long, off-balance three that missed badly.
An Alexander rebound and a push up court found Champagnie open on the left wing. A quick pass to him and a three pointer put the Red Storm up by six at 27-21. The Red Storm pushed the lead to eleven after a Mathis steal and a dunk and at 5:06 to play the Johnnies led 32-21.
But this is the Big East, and no teams go away without a fight.
Freeman-Liberty came alive and the Blue Demons fought back to within two with 19 seconds to play in the half. St. John’s took the ball out with Champagnie on the bench. They ran a weave and the third pass went to Alexander who timed his attack just right.
An open drive down the left side of the paint and a scoop layup followed with one second on the clock. The Johnnies led 39-35, but had lost the double digit lead.
Half Time Stats: DePaul had an advantage in most statistical categories except for three point shooting. The Red Storm hit six for nine while the Blue Demons shot four for 15 from out deep.
Otherwise, field goal shooting, that was not from long distance, found DePaul converting 40% and St. Johns 31%; the Johnnies missed several layups due to the height of the Blue Demon frontcourt. The rebounds were 24 to 22 in favor of DePaul and the Blue Demons registered nine assists, while the Johnnies had seven.
Posh Alexander ended the first half with a layup and continued his offense with two threes and a layup in the first two minutes of the second half. The Red Storm extended its lead to eight, 45-37.
A layup and a dunk by Champagnie sandwiched around a David Jones layup for DePaul maintained the eight point advantage at 51-43, three minutes into the half.
A seven point DePaul run over the next minute and a half cut the lead to one, as Jalen Terry was heating up with his second of four three pointers.
An Addae-Wusu dunk assisted by Champagnie extended the lead to three but then DePaul went on a 10-2 run to take the lead 60-55 with 11 minutes to play.
The Johnnies battled back despite missing free throws as they began attacking the basket every time down court, led by Montez Mathis and Champagne. A left wing jumper by Champagne put the Johnnies up 71-69 with 7:14 to play and nice defense by Aaron Wheeler and a block by O’Mar Stanley helped them maintain it on the way to an 89-84 victory.
Consistency and confidence breed one another.
Champagnie scored 34 points on 12 for 22 from the field. Included were four for seven from three point land. When the Blue Demons focused on his long range shooting in the second half, he drove the ball inside for layups. Despite hitting a dry spell from the free throw line in the middle of the half when the team needed him the most, Champagnie hit five in a row to, along Addae-Wasu, ice the game and send the team off to a positive start on the season.
However, the team needs more than Champagnie hitting from outside. We saw Posh Alexander (three for six) and Dylan Addae-Wusu (two for four) hit threes. Can they develop this skill to shoot with confidence and consistency as the season progresses? If one and hopefully both can do so, the Johnnies will have a balance to their attack that all good teams have.
Is Addae-Wusu the new point guard?
Game by game Addae-Wusu seems to be taking more of a point guard role; once again, he led the team with assists, with eight. In addition to his assists Addae-Wusu scored 17 points and was on the court for 37 minutes, the most of any Johnnie.
With Addae-Wusu playing the point Alexander is free to roam around the front court and even post up when the match up is right.
Don’t forget the little things, particularly on defense
With the Johnnies up by two and seven minutes to play, Aaron Wheeler made not one but two crucial defensive plays on consecutive plays, stymying Blue Demon attacks and allowing the Red Storm to maintain their lead.
On numerous occasions he and Joel Soriano effectively stood their ground. St. Johns had nine steals and eleven blocked shots in the game indicating that defense is more than a steal leading to a runout.
Lastly it was interesting to see Wheeler assigned to 6’0” Jalen Terry, who hit a trifecta of threes in the first 11 minutes of the second half. Wheeler was able to stay on Terry and he was held scoreless for the rest of the game. Terry was the sparkplug to assist the scoring of Liberty-Freeman when the Blue Demons took the lead in the second half.
By games end the rebounds were almost even 44 for DePaul and forty for St. Johns. Julian Champagnie led the team in not only scoring but in rebounding with 16. Soriano took down nine boards in only 17 minutes of play.
It was a good start for the Johnnies and, particularly, for Julian Champagnie in league play. His long range shot was hitting. The Johnnies pulled out a win against a scrappy DePaul team without the availability of three of their guards: Pinzon, Smith and Coburn. Alexander and Addae-Wusu showed some talent shooting from distance.
It was not a perfect game, particularly the missed foul shots and the missed layups. There were too many sloppy, forced passes that led to breakaway baskets for the Blue Demons. The Johnnies want to play fast but still under control.
The Johnnies need to tighten up these areas for them to have consistent success in league play. An away game against 16th ranked Providence will be a real challenge, a true test. Will there be consistent shooting from long range? Will the team play more consistently and under control?
The team is still a work in progress with almost half the season gone.