An unexpectedly large and enthusiastic crowd was present for a Saturday afternoon game with the Niagara Purple Eagles. Throughout the crowd there was a euphoria as the result of the victory over the Syracuse Orange earlier in the week. However, the optimism was suddenly tempered when fans saw Posh Alexander sitting down during warmup drills.
Shortly thereafter the message moved quickly amongst fans — Alexander and fellow guard Raphael Pinzon were out for the game.
With Alexander out Coach Anderson replaced him with 6’8” O’Mar Stanley. Starting Stanley alongside center Joel Soriano (the Big East’s Player of the Week, this week) was a move many fans had been discussing as Stanley brings energy, defense and rebounding to the team. Against Niagara, Stanley also would bring scoring.
The balance of the starting lineup was David Jones, Montez Mathis and Andre Curbelo, the most valuable player in the Empire Classic Tournament. Despite missing Alexander, the starting team appeared to be a confident quintet. Alexander and Pinzon were both on the bench cheering their teammates on.
In the first two minutes it was the Andre Curbelo show. First, he missed two three-pointers then made a 10-footer. Twenty-five seconds later he stole the ball, flew down the court and lofted a slightly off-target pass to David Jones, whose attempt at a dunk failed. After a Soriano block Curbelo grabbed the ball once again raced down the court and drew a foul.
In the midst of all this activity Curbelo hit two foul shots and, at the 17:47 mark and the Red Storm was up 4-3. A Mathis jumper from the right corner extended the lead to 6-3.
Curbelo made a layup, then, stepping into a passing lane, stole a Niagara pass, drove down the court and hit a cutting Soriano for a dunk. Combined with a steal and layup by Dylan Addae-Wusu, the Johnnies were up 16-8 at the 13:33 mark. The team was functioning even without Anderson and Pinzon.
For the next five minutes, the teams traded baskets. A layup by Braxton Bayles of Niagara cut the lead to five. Soriano and freshman A.J. Storr led a nine-point run and the Johnnies were comfortably ahead by 14 with six minutes to play. Soriano was taking control of defensive and offensive boards and twice tipped in missed shots by his teammates.
Noah Thomasson got hot, hitting jumpers and three-pointers as the Red Storm returned to some bad habits — leaving Purple Eagles shooters free, particularly in the corners for open threes. The Eagles took advantage, hitting five threes in the first half as the Johnnies lead was reduced to nine points at halftime.
The team’s success was best summarized by the fact that St. John’s only turned the ball over twice while Niagara turned the ball over 10 times. In the half the Johnnies registered five blocks to two for the Purple Eagles.
Recalling the adjustments the team made to control Syracuse guards, a season ticket holder wondered if the Johnnies would find a way to control Thomasson, who had hit three out of four three-point attempts on his way to scoring 11 points in the half.
The Johnnies returned to their starting five to begin the second half and instituted full court pressure to continue to rattle the Eagles, increasing the lead to 17 after Addae-Wusu faked a three-pointer from the left corner, drove the baseline and was fouled. He made one out of two foul shots to extend the Johnnies lead to 17 points, 57-40. The team was cruising but playing well for a full 40 minutes is not easy for the team this season.
Over the next three minutes Niagara went on an 12-0 run dropping the lead to five points.
The Johnnies stumbled on offense:
- Addae-Wusu missed a three pointer,
- Storr turned the ball over,
- Storr missed a jumper,
- Soriano missed two free throws,
- Storr missed a layup,
- Addae-Wusu missed another three pointer,
- Curbelo turned the ball over and
- Mathis missed two free throws.
With David Jones on the bench with four fouls, all Johnnies on the court contributed to the struggles.
The lead was just five and it was Stanley making two free throws and Mathis, who hit a three-pointer from the top of the paint, who rescued the team. The double-digit lead was restored within a minute of play.
Thomassen kept Niagara in the game with 24 points, hitting four out of six from out deep but he, alone, could not overcome the balanced scoring by the Red Storm with five Johnnies in double figures led by Soriano with 21 points.
Soriano and Stanley (again!)
We have featured the performance of these two forwards and must do so again. Soriano, in particular, did have a height advantage over the big men for the Purple Eagles. He and the team recognized it and his teammates featured getting the ball to him under the basket. He obliged hitting seven out of fourteen from the field and seven for thirteen from the foul line. In addition he took down 19 rebounds, seven of which were on the offensive boards.
Most impressive had been Soriano’s consistency this season. He has registered double doubles in six out of seven contests. The Red Storm have not seen this type of consistent performance from a “big man” for many years.
O’Mar Stanley does not average the same amount of minutes as Soriano. However, when in he brings energy and defense. In this game with a rare start, Stanley scored 10 points on four of six shooting while taking down six rebounds and blocking two Purple Eagle shots. He was a significant contributor to the Red Storm victory.
Free Throw Shooting
Missing 40% of the team’s free throws is something the team cannot afford to repeat. Fatigue may have played a role. During the second half, particularly the middle of the half, shots attempted were coming up short, hitting the front rim. On one occasion, the shooter hit the front rim then, overcompensating, bounced the next attempt off the back rim.
Seniors Joel Soriano and Montez Mathis both missed two free throw attempts during the 12 point run in the second half when Niagara pulled itself back into the game.
On the season the team is hitting at 69% of their free throws. In the first two games of the season, St. John’s connected on 87% and 85% of their free throws.
The ability of opponents to move the ball quickly and get the Johnnies away from their defensive assignments has plagued the team at times. More often than not it is due to the team’s choice to double-team far away from the basket. Sometimes this results in a steal and a fast break down the court. Other times a double team 20 feet from the basket, once an opponent frees himself, turns a disadvantage for the opponent into an advantage,
There were simply too many open threes, primarily from the corners, for Purple Eagle shooters and they converted at a rate of 42%. To the Johnnies credit, the percentage was 54.5% in the first half so the Johnnies did tighten up the defense in the second half.
Joel Soriano has been playing well on defense this year but there are times in each game where his assignment is the double an opponent far from the basket. Often these efforts allow opponents to drive by him and create a three on two or a two on one situation to take advantage of.
The up-tempo game, particularly on offense, has its advantages. On defense, when the double team is broken through it is an advantage to the opponent. In the Syracuse game the Johnnies demonstrated that the team was superior in its straight man-to-man defense. This is the defense this current team is most skilled in.
Next game is Long Island University on November 29th, likely with no Posh Alexander once again under the Concussion Protocol. Once again an opportunity for playing time for reserves.
LIU comes into the game with a 1-4 record but the Johnnies have to beware a letdown. LIU has played Utah and Marquette this year and was beaten soundly but they now have experience in playing upper-level teams.
The team cannot look past LIU to an Iowa State team that has demonstrated an ability to play with and defeat the likes of Villanova and North Carolina next week. That will be a most interesting game for the Johnnies but there is still work to be done this Tuesday. Goal number one — find ways to continue pressure defense without so many holes in the corners allowing opponents open three-pointers.
With an established starting lineup the game is certainly an opportunity to define which of the reserves mixes well with other teammates. The Johnnies should win and this is an opportunity to identify winning roster combinations.