Late in the evening, as the Garden was filling up with fans, it was noted that both Aaron Wheeler and Stef Smith were hitting their three point practice shots with regularity during warmups while other Johnnie sharpshooters were struggling.
On the other end of the court Justin Moore and Collin Gillespie of Villanova was taking part in warmups despite reports that they were injured and had missed practice the day before. The Johnnies were going to play without starting point guard Posh Alexander, who was on the bench with a boot over his sprained ankle.
Fans expressed concern with the Villanova sophomore center Eric Dixon, who has been an offensive force in recent games. How would he match up against Joel Soriano, who would need to continue his recent good play to counter Dixon. It was a common concern amongst fans.
Villanova fans, sitting nearby, confirmed their excitement over the improved play of Dixon. One commented, “He’s good but I hope [he focuses] on his moves under the basket and not turn into another three point specialist.”
The game opened with Soriano winning the opening tap from Dixon. The student section in back of both baskets was filled with students in red and alive from the beginning with chants of “Let’s Go Johnnies”.
Dixon opened the scoring with a three, which was met by a Wheeler three 20 seconds later. Wheeler appeared ready to continue his accurate jump shooting displayed in warmups. Villanova was also ready and jumped off to a 7-3 lead behind Jermaine Samuels’ energetic play.
A three by Dylan Addae-Wusu cut the deficit to one and a jumper by Aaron Wheeler gave the Johnnies their first lead at 8-7 at the 15:04 mark. The lead lasted for 21 seconds as a layup put the Wildcats back in front at 9-8.
The Johnnies would never again lead but much drama was to come.
The leading scorer for the Red Storm, Julian Champagnie, appeared to injure his hand early in the game and was taped up by a trainer. He would not score for much of the first half, and it was Wheeler who was carrying the team with an array of jump shots and drives to the hoop. On the Wildcat side, Dixon was finding position under the hoop and, despite firm defense, was able to draw two quick fouls on Soriano. Other frontcourt players had little success handling the Nova sophomore.
The Nova backcourt was not scoring efficiently and the Johnnies were able to keep the game within reach.
Champagnie scored his first points on a jumper assisted by Wheeler to cut the Nova lead to 22-16 at the 6:21 mark in a low-scoring contest. At 4:17 he was fouled hard on a drive to the basket and shaken up.
Champagnie returned to the game after an officials’ time out to make two free throws and followed up with a three pointer to keep the Johnnies within reach.
Freshman O’Mar Stanley took a turn trying to contain Dixon and had a nice sequence of plays around the seven minute mark of the half. Battling energetically on the boards he took an offensive rebound and put it back for two points. Ten seconds later he blocked a Nova shot and shortly afterwards cleared the defensive boards, passing out to start a Red Storm break. Stanley continues to provide energy to the team when he enters the game.
The Johnnies trailed the Wildcats going into halftime 34-28. The game was within reach but the team had to find some means of neutralizing the efforts of Dixon.
At the half the Wildcats were led by frontline players Dixon, Samuels, and Brandon Slater, who scored 25 of the Wildcats 34 points. Of the three, Dixon was hitting an impressive 5/7 for 12 points. St. John’s continued the frontcourt prowess in the game with Wheeler’s 12 points, Champagnie’s seven points and Stanley’s four points leading the way.
Rebounds were even with the Johnnies taking down 21 to the Wildcat’s 20. The difference was in field goal percentage with the Wildcats hitting 46% to the Johnnies 30%.
With point guard Posh Alexander out with an ankle injury and Moore and Gillespie struggling with healing ankle sprains the game in the first half was not a backcourt game.
The second half began conspicuously with one missing Johnnie.
Champaignie was nowhere to be seen and the Johnnies would have to find others to support Wheeler’s efforts to battle back into the game.
Wheeler hit a three to bring the Johnnies within three points 30 seconds into the half.
Then the Johnnies went scoreless for the next five minutes as the Wildcats ran off 13 straight points. A Johnnies fan stated, “They are too good. We are going to get killed.” Other diehard Johnnies fans responded, “The team is still playing hard even without Alexander and Champagnie.”
The run was stopped by another Wheeler three, who at this point in the game had accounted for 18 of the Johnnies 34 points.
The Johnnies desperately needed someone to assist Wheeler on the offensive end of the floor. With 10 minutes to go, Wheeler initiated a sequence by feeding Soriano under the basket. Instead of putting up a pressured hook shot, Soriano found a cutting Stef Smith and hit him with a nice bounce pass that Smith turned into a layup and the Johnnies were down by ten 41-31.
Champagnie, who had returned from the locker room at the 16 minute mark, joined the offense with a jumper at 7:24 to keep the Johnnies within striking distance, down eleven at 56-45.
Then a 10-1 Wildcat run extended the lead to twenty, 66-46 with four and a half minutes to play. Some fans began to leave but most stayed.
They were rewarded.
First there was a Campagnie three.
Then it was Smith, attacking the Wildcat basket and getting fouled. He converted. The lead was down to 15 with 3:19 to play. Two Nova free throws extended the lead to 17, but Smith followed with a layup and was fouled. He converted the free throw.
A five second call on Nova for failure to inbounds the ball was, then, followed by another layup and a made foul shot by Smith. The lead was down to eleven. There was still just under three minutes to play.
Wheeler made two threes sandwiched around two free throws. Justin Moore of Villanova was coming alive in the second half and stemmed the Johnnies comeback with a layup fighting off the Red Storm run.
In the last 30 seconds the Johnnies had their chance. A 23-6 run had found them down by three with after another Villanova turnover. There were 25 seconds to play. The Johnnies brought the ball up, worked the ball around and found Tariq Coburn open for a three on the right wing with 13 seconds to play. His shot rimmed off.
Nova free throws extended the lead to six in the final seconds and the Johnnies efforts at a comeback once again were stymied in the last minute of play this season.
Wheeler Steps Up Big Time
For the second time in a week the Johnnies took on a team ranked in the Top 20. A week ago it was Providence and Posh Alexander tried to will the team to victory with 29 points. Earlier in the season it was Julian Champagnie doing the same.
St. John’s was looking for a third offensive weapon and beginning in the loss at Providence on January 8, 2022 Aaron Wheeler began to step his game up with a 15 point effort. With the exception of the loss to Villanova on January 29th he has scored in double figures every game. In the rematch with Villanova at the Garden, Wheeler finished with a line of: 31 points on 11 for 17 field goal attempts, including six out of 10 from three point range. He had seven rebounds and two blocks. An impressive evening of work.
Wheeler appears to be a third offensive option for the Red Storm as the team moves into crunch time in the schedule and preps for the Big East tournament, coming in a month.
Layups and Threes
Fans often ask the question, “How can so many layups be missed?”
Some of the guards clearly struggled when attacking the Villanova frontline which consistently picked up Red Storm guards as they penetrated into the paint. Villanova needs to be given credit, in part, for the Johnnies’ poor shooting percentage.
When the Johnnies are playing well, they are hitting from outside and their guards, upon defenses collapsing around their drives, are feeding their teammates in the corners for open jumpers. Unfortunately, only Wheeler was consistently hitting his outside shot.
The four Johnnie guards went 1/16 from three point land.
Julian Champagnie had his moments but still his overall field goal percentage was 27 percent.
When opponents are able to cover Red Storm attackers, alternative offensive strategy is needed. The Johnnies had 13 offensive rebounds to seven for Nova. This, in part, played a role in the Johnnies putting up 21 more field goal attempts than the Wildcats did. The fact that St. John’s made 21 more field goal attempts and converted one less shot indicates one of two things:
· The Johnnies do not have talented shooters.
· The Johnnies shot selection choices were not wise.
The Johnnies had 13 assists on 24 made field goals, a 54% rate. The team has done better. During the January 29th loss the Johnnies assisted on 64% of their made baskets. Not having starting point guard Posh Alexander had an impact and, if playing, his recently acquired 12-15 foot pull up jumper may have loosened up the Nova defense.
The Johnnies made 32 percent of their shots. This includes Wheeler’s percentage of hitting 64 percent. Take his efforts away, the rest of the team hit 23 percent of their attempts. Hitting this low a percentage does not translate into very many victories, even when one player stands out and tries to carry the team. It is too much to ask of any one player.
Twenty-three games have been played. There are veterans on this team, and they need to honestly assess their performance to be ready for a challenging seven league games ahead. Shot selection choices are where the team needs to start.
The team’s struggles shooting free throws has been well documented and the percentage in the second Villanova game (75%) was an improvement, though the fact that only 16 free throw attempts were made continues to be a mystery for a team that aggressively attacks the basket. Once again shot selection comes into play.
Two games of above average free throw shooting needs to be kept up.
There is another side of free throw shooting. It is what happens when the opposing team is on the line.
The Johnnies are not talented enough to give away points when the opposition is shooting and misses free throws. In the first half the Johnnies stepping into the lane too quickly gave Villanova a second shot attempt after missing the first. Villanova converted.
In the second half after two missed free throws, the Johnnies did not box out and Nova scored after the teams battled for the rebound. That is three points given away, three points the Johnnies could have used in the last minute of play.
Little things matter. In this game they really mattered.
Fans have said it over and over — the team plays hard. It somehow stays in games. There have been several almost wins. But most of the time in close contests, the team did not make the big shot, take down the big rebound and make the crucial defensive stop at the end of the game.
Coach Anderson reported that the team played up to expectations at the end of the Villanova game. Why not throughout the game? The intensity at the end of the game was due to desperation. Is it that the team must play desperate from the opening jump through the end of the second half to compete?
The team was without Posh Alexander on February 8, 2022. This was a loss. Villanova had all players in uniform. But it was clear that some were not one hundred percent.
Wheeler presents as a reliable offensive option to Champagnie and Alexander. Given his outside shooting these past few games, he may be the most trustworthy Johnnie.
Time is running out on the team’s fortunes and the coaching staff needs to find the way to assist in the decision making across the board in order to bring the hoped-for success so expected earlier in the year.
Connecticut is a winnable game, but we have been saying that all year long. They are in the top 25 in the country, hanging in at 24 It is may be the last chance for the Johnnies to get a significant win this season prior to the Big East tournament.