Fans appeared early at Madison Square Garden for the noontime contest with the Connecticut Huskies, wondering if standout point guard Posh Alexander would play.
The question was answered quickly when Alexander entered the arena in black sweats alongside fellow Johnnie, Raphael Pinzon, also in black. It was a discouraging sight to see both point guards still on unavailable, but one fan expressed optimism, “if we can control their big guy, I feel we will win this game.” The big guy referred to is 6’9”, 240 pound, Adama Sanogo, who dominated the earlier contest between the Huskies and Johnnies in January.
Other early game observations were not so positive. The team did not seem to be shooting accurately during pregame warmups in recent games. A fan, attending his first live game this season, summarized while watching the warmups, “they keep missing.”
Stef Smith got the start replacing Montez Mathis in the starting lineup Also starting were Aaron Wheeler, Julian Champagnie, Dylan Addae-Wusu, and Joel Soriano.
Soriano cleanly won the opening jump, but it was the Huskies who scored first. Sanogo scored the first six points for the Huskies as they took a 6-5 lead, just as fans feared.
Soriano hit a layup, then Tareq Coburn hit Champagnie on a nice backdoor cut and the Johnnies were in the lead 9-6 at the 15:10 mark of the game.
The game was a back and forth affair for the first half. Mathis, coming off the bench, hit a driving dunk which brought Johnnies fans to their feet at the 13:10 mark.
“In your face”, a fan called out, as 6’4” Mathis won this challenge over a Huskie front court that would eventually register 13 blocked shots in the game.
Addae-Wusu joined the battle with driving layups on the way to scoring 12 points in the first half. His offense was very much needed as both Wheeler and Champagnie were struggling, shooting a combined three for 12 in the half.
The Johnnies went to a defense that rotated from man to man to zone and back to man to man near the end of the half. It seemed to momentarily confuse the Huskies, who only scored two points in the last five minutes of the half. Nevertheless, Connecticut led 30-29 at the half and fans were encouraged that, even missing Alexander, the Johnnies were in the game.
The Huskies led most statistical categories in the first half, most importantly in shooting percentage, 40 percent to the Johnnies 34 percent. The Johnnies actually only led in one category, offensive rebounding, gathering six rebounds to four for Connecticut. But this advantage was to little benefit as the Red Storm continually struggled to hit their put back attempts.
In a defensively intensive effort by both squads in the first half, turnovers were relatively little with Connecticut turning the ball over five times to the Red Storm’s three times.
The game continued with the lead passing back and forth between the two teams for the first eight minutes. With the Huskies leading 43-40 Mathis began to assert himself on the offensive end. He found the Connecticut defense vulnerable on his drives to the basket, most coming down the right side of the paint.
Mathis had struggled in the team’s last game against Villanova, taking several shots unsuccessfully from out deep.
There were no such shots this day. In the next two minutes Mathis drew two fouls and hit two layups. He converted on all four of his free throws and, after a Champagnie layup, he hit another driving layup assisted by Esahia Nyiwe for a four point Johnnie's lead.
The team was moving the ball around and attacking the suddenly vulnerable Huskie defense.
UConn called timeout and fed Sanogo down low, but Coburn blocked his shot. The Johnnies pushed the ball downcourt and this time Mathis did not attack the rim but passed to Stef Smith who hit a 20 footer from the top of the key for a seven point lead with 7:46 to play.
As has happened too often this year, the Johnnies jumped into a lead only to give it up all too quickly. In less than two minutes an eight point run, featuring two wide open threes by Tyrese Martin, put the Huskies back in the lead 55-54 with just under six minutes to play.
Over the next four minutes the Johnnies turned the ball over, missed a three, missed a layup, then missed two more threes and a short jumper. Their defensive intensity stayed strong and, despite the poor shooting, the UConn lead only grew to four points.
A Mathis layup broke the 11-0 run and with the Johnnies down by two points Champagnie went to the line shooting a one and one. Usually a reliable free throw shooter, he missed his first shot.
The Huskies, unlike the Johnnies made their late game free throws, and tight defense in the last 12 seconds of the game kept the Johnnies from hitting what might have been a tying three pointer. Once again, the Johnnies were disappointed, losing 63-60.
The Johnnies assisted on 17 of 24 made field goals, an impressive percentage. They only turned the ball over eight times to 15 for Uconn. The play of the defense was strong and kept the game competitive.
What stood out was the fact that several of the eight Red Storm turnovers were due to poor offensive choices. Red Storm players attempted to force passes to teammates that were easily intercepted by Huskies.
The Johnnies play an uptempo game and decisions about forcing an attack on the basket versus pulling the ball back out and looking for a more advantageous shot are split second decisions.
One could argue that only eight turnovers in 40 minutes of play, given the Johnnies uptempo style, is impressive. However, Uconn blocked 13 Red Storm shots. These blocks, mostly recovered by Huskie players, were the equivalent of turnovers and many were due to overly aggressive, poor choices by Red Storm players attacking the basket when no clear lanes of attack were available.
The Johnnies were not shooting the ball well and the team’s choice of shots, when shooting poorly, becomes very important. Mathis adjusted his game and had success due to better shot selection. The coaching staff has to, game in and game out, make adjustments to assist the rest of the players to do the same.
How much did losing Posh Alexander matter?
This is not as easy a call to make as it appears. When losing a close game by three points when one of your best players is out, it becomes easy to say that, if he played, the team would have won.
But what part of Alexander’s game would have made a difference?
The Johnnies need a reliable shooter from the outside to keep opponents from packing defenses in and stymying drives by Red Storm players. Earlier in the season Julian Champagnie was that player. Against Villanova on February 8th, it was Aaron Wheeler.
On February 13th, however the Johnnies shot 24 percent from three-point land. More specifically, during the four minute drought at the end of the game, three of the Johnnies five shots were three-point attempts. There was little threat from the Johnnies from long distance.
As good an offensive player Posh Alexander is, he does not shoot well from distance. What his presence can offer is a reliable mid-range jumper. If he played and if he was on, Alexander could have provided a basket or two in crunch time. It would be a basket or two that would have made a difference.
Champagnie said it after the game
After the game Julian Champagnie offered the following assessment of the team’s play: “The amount of layups we missed in the game is unacceptable. We have to make our shots. When we have open opportunities, we need to knock them down. We have to get better to be honest. That goes for me and everyone else. You have to be better.”
It is an honest assessment that every player needs to take to heart. The good news is that the team has been competitive in most games this year. To turn games around, that the team lost by only a few points, will not take a lot of improvement. Adding Posh Alexander, when he recovers from his sprained ankle, will help. But even with Alexander, as Champagnie stated, we all “have to do better.”
Twenty-four games have come and gone, and the question remains: was too much expected of the team at the beginning of the year or is the team capable of playing even just a little better, enough to turn close losses into victories. The team plays in a competitive league, and it can be expected that all of the teams, even struggling Georgetown, will be playing better as the season winds down.
So, the team will have to play more than a “little bit better” to have success in the last six games of the season. With Butler and DePaul playing better as the season winds down, all games will be challenges for the Red Storm.
The away game against Xavier on Wednesday may be the greatest challenge ahead. The team found Montez Mathis stepping up. Can Mathis keep it up? Can other players join him? Both will need to occur for the Johnnies to move forward, closer to early season expectations.