During the pregame, one question was on Red Storm fans’ minds — would the Johnnies produce a full game of quality performance?
Carnesecca reportedly was 70% full, and the crowd was enthused. The very first time the Johnnies were on defense after David Jones missed a layup on the first possession, the fans roared “Defense … defense!” They were ready for an expected explosion of turnovers by the Cornhuskers, blocks by the Johnnies, and fast break baskets as a result of the turnovers.
In the first half, the fans found disappointment, and low-scoring basketball.
Yes, Soriano rewarded the chanting fans by blocking a three-foot jumper by 6’11” Blasé Keita. However, 20 seconds later Alexander turned the ball over. A minute and a half followed in which no one scored until Alexander drove across the paint from the left wing and laid the ball in.
In the next 30 seconds, David Jones was called twice for fouls and had to be removed from the game with just two minutes of early playing time. The Johnnies focused on getting the ball into Soriano underneath the basket, and the big Dominican center drew free throws, hitting one.
Nebraska’s Juwan Gary scored, leading Nebraska to a 4-3 lead.
Although he was not scoring, Soriano was clearing the boards frequently on his way to taking down 18 boards during the game.
With five minutes gone by and the score 4-4 and fans were asking “will either team get to twenty points by halftime?” The lack of offense continued; at the 10 minute mark the score was 8-8.
The Johnnies shooting woes were painful to watch — missed layups and missed putbacks. With 3:06 to play Nebraska led by nine, 25-16. The Cornhuskers were shooting 37% and hitting 25% of their threes. The Red Storm was converting on 20% of their field goal attempts and hit no threes. Montez Mathis had hit two jumpers and the rest of the field goals were Posh Alexander layups.
The Johnnies, down by seven at the half, had three blocks by both O’Mar Stanley and Joel Sorianno. They led in rebounds 24-19. However, the three-point shooting, often taken quite early in the shot clock, was at a dreadful 0/10.
Despite the poor performance, the fans remained optimistic and supportive. Would the game turn around in the second half, as it did in the previous two games? However, pretty good defense does not, on its own, win games.
The Nebraska defensive game plan in the first half resulted in Red Storm players attacking one on two or even one on three defenders from the corners throughout the first half. Trapped in a corner with no one open, the Johnnies were forcing up unbalanced shots and no one except for Mathis was hitting jumpers.
To start the second half, the Red Storm immediately went into full-court pressure. Led by Joel Soriano, the Red Storm clawed their way back into the game, scoring the first seven points in the half to tie the score at 27. After a C.J. Wilcher foul shot briefly put the Cornhuskers in the lead at 28-27 with 17:16 to play, seven seconds later Posh Alexander drove into the paint and kicked out to a wide open Curbelo in the left corner, who made the Red Storm’s first three-pointer to take a two-point lead, 30-28.
The fans were ready to explode and so they did when a Soriano steal and a pass to a breaking Mathis ended in a dunk and a four point lead. The noise in Carnesecca arena was deafening.
After an official TV timeout, David Jones re-entered the game with a stat line of no points, shooting zero for five. Momentum was in the Johnnies’ favor. With the defense pressing after most made baskets, the Cornhuskers began to inbound the ball and rely on one of their ballhandlers to, on their own, try to break the Johnnies’ pressure.
The pressure made the Huskers waste time getting the ball over the half court line, and, with time expiring on the shot clock, Nebraska began throwing the ball away or making careless passes that Johnnie defenders could intercept.
The game was still in reach for the Cornhuskers when David Jones scored his first points on a putback of a miss by Dylan Addae-Wusu at the 13;20 mark. After a Nebraska three, Jones responded with not one but two consecutive three-pointers. The Red Storm suddenly were up by 11 at 44-33.
Jones then grabbed an offensive rebound and put it back in — and then stole the ball. A pass to AJ Storr found Storr driving into the paint and hitting Alexander for a layup and a 15-point lead. Jones had scored 10 points in just 2 minutes and 35 seconds — then stole the ball again that led to the Alexander layup. When he came out a minute later, he received thunderous applause.
AJ Storr had struggled earlier in the contest, missing all three of his three-point attempts. At the 8:07 mark, he once again received the ball in the left corner. Instead of putting up another three, he pump faked, drew his defender towards him and drove down the baseline with a dunk. Thirty seconds later Curbelo found him alone on the right wing. Receiving a pass from Curbelo, Storr calmly put up a successful three. The Johnnies led 54-38. The offense was clicking and the Cornhuskers were held to just 11 points in the first twelve and a half minutes of the half.
Keeping the defensive intensity up, the Johnnies cruised to a 70-50 victory.
Defensive Pressure: For the third game in a row, it was the defensive pressure that opened up the floor, leading to several breakaway attempts by the Johnnies which they mostly converted. The Cornhuskers played a relatively clean first half with six turnovers. Not so in the second half when Red Storm pressure led to 11 turnovers. Many were steals made by Curbelo who was quick to step into passing lanes open by pressured passes from Nebraska guards.
In the first half Cornhusker players were able to bring the ball up successfully and run plays feeding inside to their big men. Soriano and Stanley had to stand strong to limit the success of these plays.
In the second half, the helter-skelter nature of the game minimized the efforts of the Cornhuskers to play off of their big men as they did in the first half.
Curbelo and Alexander: Two talented pass-first point guards. The Johnnies are fortunate to have two talented pass-first guards. And this game proved the can play together. Each emboldens the others’ performance.
In the second half as the Johnnies moved ahead by four points, it was still anyone’s game. After the TV timeout good defense by the Red Storm led to a Cornhusker turnover. With Curbelo driving down the left baseline, instead of forcing a shot, he saw Alexander cutting down the paint and hit him for a layup. The timing was perfect.
There is part of Posh Alexander’s game that is uniquely his. Not too many six-foot guards can post up against a taller defender and spin to the basket with the ball in his hand. This part is not in Curbelo’s repertoire. In his repertoire is a guard with excellent court vision that has on more than one occasion been the teammate feeding Alexander in the right position under the basket where he can take advantage of these skills.
Both guards can fall into a pattern of attacking the basket when there is no clear path to the basket. As the season progresses, they should be able to better identify when to attack and when to pass out to teammates.
Big time efforts from Soriano and Stanley: Joel Soriano had a monster game and against opponents close to his size. Nebraska began the game with an offensive game plan to feed 6’11’ Blase Keita inside to test Soriano and to possibly get him into foul trouble. It did not work and the Cornhuskers abandoned that plan two and a half minutes into the game.
While defending against the frontline of the Cornhuskers, Soriano accumulated an impressive stat line — 12 rebounds and blocked three shots. In many ways his rebounding and defense were keeping the Johnnies in the game.
When Soriano needed a breather, sophomore O’Mar Stanley entered the game. During a brief period of time, spelling Soriano, Stanley took down two rebounds, had an assist and blocked three Nebraska shots.
By the games end, playing 48 minutes between them, occasionally on the court together, their joint stat line was: 20 points, 23 rebounds, six blocks, while accumulating just one personal foul each.
Can they be on the court together more often? From a defensive standpoint this would be advantageous but from an offensive standpoint, it is less certain. Since they both have been playing so well this year, it will be interesting to see how the Red Storm choose to utilize these talented ball players.
It is now on to a likely more challenging test as one of the four teams in the Empire Classic on November 21st and November 22nd. Temple enters the game against the Johnnies with a 2-2 record but impressive wins over Villanova and over Rutgers. The Johnnies will have to be ready to play their “A” game for not just a half but for the entire game.
After this game a second game on the 22nd will be against the winner of the Syracuse/ Richmond game.
Whomever the Johnnies play on the second day of the tournament, this is a tournament requiring a more consistent game, built on wise decision-making for all Red Storm players.
The team has shown an ability to play hard both in the pressing defense and as half-court defenders. The use of a double team must be used strategically and wisely. Shifting into a double team well away from the basket often has left the person one is guarding free for an open shot. That has happened too often this season.
Similarly on offense the team has to play its game and not be induced into playing the opponent’s game. With point guards like Alexander, Curbelo and Kolby King the talent is there. The game plan has to be set to maximize their skills.