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Three takeaways: senior night stellar performances produce big win over Xavier

Five Johnnies were in double figures and stellar defense shows formula for future success

Nick Bello

Prior to the game, star wing Julian Champagnie shared with the local press that “he has been defended much tougher this year.” Local coaches have confirmed that “teams have loaded up against him.” Champagne felt he “has not been good enough this season” and states that neither he nor any of his teammates have given up on turning the season around in the last two games and the Big East tournament.

As fans entered Carnesecca there was an optimism. “We beat them a couple of weeks ago at their place,” one fan shared. A second was excited because, “we have Joel Soriano back. A Big Guy to protect the defensive rim.”

Prior to the game three seniors, Stef Smith, Tareq Coburn and Jalen Rosemond were honored before the game. This one last performance at Carnesecca Arena was to become a memorable one for one of the three.

First Half

Joel Soriano, Tareq Coburn, Stef Smith, Julian Champagnie and Posh Alexander started, looking to bounce back from two losses in a packed Carnesecca Arena. Fans were handed out bobbleheads, celebrating the years Marcus Hatten performed for the Johnnies.

Colby Jones of Xavier takes a jumper
Nick Bello

At 19:24 of the half Xavier’s forward Colby Jones hit a jumper for a 2-0 lead. Ten seconds later, Coburn hit a three from the left wing and the Johnnies led 3-2. Chants of “Defense … defense” erupted in the crowd. The fans were ready to cheer on the Red Storm.

Thirty seconds later after a Coburn block of a Jones layup, Coburn fed Alexander dashing down the left side of the court. As he neared the basket, he saw Smith open on the right and hit him for a layup and a 5-2 lead.

Soriano, who had missed the previous two games with a knee injury, made his presence known with a layup at the 17:48 of the half, then a put back of his own missed shot at 11:29 followed by a jump hook 10 minutes into the half.

NCAA Basketball: Xavier at St. John Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

He scored six of the Johnnies first 15 points causing Xavier defenders to take notice and guard him deep under the basket. This opened up some opportunities from out deep and the Johnnies, particularly Coburn and Aaron Wheeler, took advantage. By game’s end Coburn would hit five threes on the way to a 20 point game.

At the media timeout at 15:45 the Johnnies had already recorded three blocked shots.

The Musketeers did fight back in a low-scoring half, tying the score at 22 with five minutes to play in the half. A Wheeler jumper put the Johnnies up by two only to be matched by a jumper by Zach Freemantle of Xavier.

An Alexander free throw followed by an Alexander offensive rebound and a pass to an open Wheeler at the top of the key resulted in a three-pointer;t hat shot gave the Johnnies a four point lead which they carried into the half.

Halftime Statistics

Stef Smith, focused
Nick Bello

During the first half it seemed that the Musketeers were outrebounding the Johnnies and were keeping the game close by attacking the offensive boards and putting rebounds back in the basket. Although the Musketeers registered eight offensive rebounds, the Johnnies, when counting offensive and defensive rebounds, actually had three more than Xavier.

Neither team shot well for the half, but the Red Storm was a bit better, hitting 36 percent to Xavier’s 28 percent. Turnovers were about even with the Johnnies registering four to three for Xavier. Though at times pressing after made baskets, the focus on defense was to eliminate open looks by the Musketeers and the effort was clearly successful.

Second Half

Freemantle made a layup 40 seconds into the half to cut the lead to two, and the Johnnies raced down the court in response. Ten seconds later, Champagnie found an open Wheeler from the left wing for a three and the Johnnies were up 36-31. In the next two minutes Coburn hit two open threes to lengthen the lead to eight.

With 17:15 Wheeler dribbling on the right wing found an open Soriano to the right of the basket and deftly passed over a Musketeer defender fronting him. Soriano hit the layup and the Johnnies led by 10, 44-34.

At a media timeout with just over 17 minutes to play, a promotion by St. John’s offered a half court shot by a fan. If he made it, Food Bazaar, a local grocery, was offering a package of food for the young marksman.

He took a shot that rimmed the basket and dropped out. Such an “almost effort” was rewarded, not with a lesser award, but with another shot. With the audience behind him, the young man took the ball a short distance behind the half court line and took one last heave. Swish it went to wild cheers from the crowd.

One fan remarked, “He looks young enough to be a college student; sign him up as a half court shooting specialist.”

The young man’s success was followed by chants of “defense” by an energized student section.

Julian Champagnie dunks
Nick Bello

It was now Champagnie’s turn to take over. Having scored but six points in the first half, he dunked the ball, assisted by Alexander, then hustled back to block a breakaway layup by Adam Kunkle of Xavier. With six minutes to play Champagnie hit two jumpers, then stole the ball and drive to the basket for a layup. Three baskets in 50 seconds for the Red Storm’s leading scorer.

Nothing comes easy in Big East competition. Behind Jones, the Musketeers closed to within three points by making a couple of steals on Red Storm inbounds passes.

Xavier’s Paul Scruggs attacks the basket
Nick Bello

The Johnnies adjusted and the Musketeers were forced into fouling in order to regain possession of the ball. Posh Alexander hit six of eight free throw attempts in the last three minutes of play to seal an 81-66 victory.

The Johnnies had five players score in double figures led by Coburn’s 20 points.

Three Takeaways

Tareq Coburn’s opus

There have been moments when senior Tareq Coburn showed a special touch from three- point land. But he clearly saved his best for Senior’s Night. Not only did he score 20 points, he did so efficiently, hitting 6/8 field goal attempts — 5/7 from out deep.

Coburn and fellow senior Stef Smith were recruited to provide scoring from beyond the arc. Each Johnnie has had his moments in games during the year but both seniors were inconsistent performers this season.

Against Xavier, Coburn stood out, not just in the home finale but also in the February 16th contest with the Musketeers when he scored 13 points.

A repeat performance by Coburn or a similar performance by Smith could go a long way to raise the prospects for the Red Storm in the Big East Tournament.

Smith celebrates with Dylan Addae-Wusu, Champagnie, and Coburn (in red warmups)
Nick Bello

Joel Soriano’s return

Joel Soriano came back from a knee injury to score 10 points on 5/7 shooting. He also took down five rebounds in 22 minutes of play. What was impressive was not just his scoring totals, but how Soriano was scoring.

The scoring was not dominated by dunks; Soriano backed 7’0” 247 pound Jack Nunge down low and then scored on jump hooks from three to five feet away. It is a shot difficult for even seven-footers to guard.

The Red Storm benefits greatly when Soriano can score down low. Opponents have rarely double teamed him but, if he continues to score this efficiently, opponents may have to game plan differently.

While front court players Esahia Nyiwe and O’Mar Stanley have performed admirably when in, Soriano has shown himself to be an offensive force to be reckoned with.

Defensive strategy

Coburn blocks Xavier’s Jones
Nick Bello

The Johnnies defense only led to nine Musketeer turnovers. But it held the Musketeers to shooting 32.4 percent for the game. Xavier, particularly in the first half, simply could not hit a jump shot. Rarely did a Musketeer shoot without a hand in his face.

The Johnnies did apply pressure after made baskets but, unlike times in the past, when the Musketeers broke through, the Johnnies had regained their defensive positions and focused on halfcourt defense.

Against DePaul on February 27 Javon Freeman-Liberty often found himself open for three pointers on his way to scoring 39 points in a fast-paced game. The Musketeers did not see that kind of freedom.

Was it poor play by the Musketeers or inspired defense by the Johnnies? The Johnnies mixed up their zone and straight man-to-man defenses effectively. If they continue to do so, there is hope for more victories in March.


O’Mar Stanley celebrates from the bench
Nick Bello

The Johnnies came out focused for the Xavier game. Players stepped up to balance the scoring with five players scoring in double figures. The defense played admirably.

The Red Storm has played like this past game several times this year. An equal number of times the team has struggled.

Since a seven-game winning streak in January vaulted Marquette into the top 25, the Golden Eagles have won three times in eight contests. Is this road game against the Golden Eagles a game the Red Storm can win? It is away from home, but the Johnnies have won four Big East away games already this year. The team is capable, but someone has to get hot from the outside to fulfill the game plan. There are several Johnnies who could be that person.

Lastly, the defense needs to work hard to limit open looks for Golden Eagle players. They did so against Xavier. Time to do the same again on March 5th.