It was an arena filling up quickly as the Johnnies emerged in sharp-looking white sweats with red trimmings. With the Johnnies being established as 24.5-point favorites, the crowd was ready. One fan, when asked which Johnnie not named Joel Soriano, with the score tied with 25 seconds to play he would want to see with the ball, he immediately replied “Jordan Dingle”. Fans were picking their favorites. As the game progressed another fan replied, “R.J. Luis is our man” as he was scoring 14 points in 16 minutes of play, while taking down four rebounds and leading the Johnnies with three steals.
Joel Soriano easily won the opening tip and the Johnnies moved the ball quickly downcourt. However, there was a sloppiness in the first play and several others during the first eight minutes of play. There were only a few incidences of one-on-one play and the team was looking to move the ball into the high post. But the team’s play was erratic, beginning with Chris Ledlum’s errant pass just twenty-one seconds into the game. A short time afterward an open three from the right corner by Joe Nugent of Holy Cross gave the Crusaders an early 3-0 lead.
With 18:25 left, Dingle made a clean steal and broke downcourt dunking the ball, cutting the Holy Cross lead to 3-2.
The Johnnies took their first lead at 17:18 after Daniss Jenkins hit Glenn Taylor in the right corner with a pass. Taylor immediately found Soriano open on the right block for the first of several dunks he would hammer and the Johnnies led 4-3. This was the first of eight scores within close range in over 17 minutes of play for the 6’11” senior.
Luis came into the game at the sixteen-minute mark and immediately got involved. With 15:39 to play, he stole the ball and fed Dingle who forwarded a cross-court bounce pass to freshman Simeon Wilcher. Seeing a streaking Luis downcourt, Wilcher hit him with a perfect lead pass and Luis converted the pass into a layup and an 8-6 Johnny lead.
Things began to fall apart for the Johnnies, as the Crusaders scored the next ten points and suddenly took a 16-8 lead. Nahiem Alleyne broke the run with a 12-foot jumper on the right side of the paint. A three from the left wing by Taylor cut the Holy Cross lead to three, 18-15, and broke an 0-for-4 spell of missed threes by four different Johnnie teammates.
At about this time, Phoenix Sun forward Kevin Durant was in the arena and those with sharp eyes found him seated in the first row directly in front of the Johnnies’ bench. Would he be an inspiration for a Johnnies’ run?
The Johnnies intensified the defense and the Crusaders struggled. The Red Storm doubled-teamed the Crusaders in the backcourt causing sloppy passes. They faced Holy Cross ball handlers face-to-face and won several battles, taking the ball right out of the Crusaders’ hands.
The Johnnies began feeding Soriano in the low post and he responded as Holy Cross had no answer once he received a pass under the basket. In the last 12 minutes of play the Red Storm outscored Holy Cross by twenty-four points and carried a 44 to 28 point lead into the locker room.
After a poor start, the Johnnies improved their field goal percentage to 58 percent with the Crusaders hitting 48 percent. However, the key difference in the half was not the shooting but the turnovers created. The Johnnies turned the ball over three times in the first three and a half minutes but only once in the remainder of the half. In contrast, the Crusaders had nine turnovers, seven of them due to steals by Red Storm defenders.
Due to being behind by sixteen as the half began, the Crusaders attempted to double-team Red Storm ball handlers as they crossed the mid-court line. It didn’t work as the Johnnies fought through the pressure and expanded their lead to 23 points with 17:35 remaining.
Luis returned to the game with other members of the second team. After the first team established a comfortable lead Coach Pitino allowed the second teamers to play for many minutes. Given the opportunity to display their skills, they did not disappoint. As the lead continued to grow Luis, Wilcher, Dunlap, and backup center, Zuby Ejiofor stood out. Fans fully enjoyed the performance of the second team, particularly Luis, whose performance was described as having the wiry quickness of former Johnnies’ star, Shamorie Ponds while adding several additional inches of rebounding skill to his game.
The last time the Johnnies held an opponent to 45 points or less in a game was on December 23, 2009. Will there be more similar defensive efforts to come?
Takeaway One: Great response from a slow start
At the 12:16 mark of the first half the Red Storm were losing 18-10. Then what happened? The Johnnies began instituting full-court pressure around the fifteen-minute mark. At first, it seemed undisciplined. The Crusaders were able to break through to the basket and draw defenders covering up. The Johnnies’ defensive response left Crusader teammates open in the corners for kick-out passes and long-range shots which they converted.
However, in time the pressure began to take its toll. The Johnnies were quick to challenge the Crusaders’ inbound passes, several times arriving at the defender as he was receiving the ball. Holy Cross became rattled. A traveling call after receiving a pass in the open court followed. Coach Pitino kept substituting second teamers to keep those pressing fresh and the Crusaders seemed a step behind in making adjustments.
Not all teams will be confused so easily as Holy Cross was, but the second half of the first period demonstrated the potential the Red Storm pressure has to disrupt.
Takeaway Two: Second teamers play well
The statistics are clear that the first team after the first eight minutes of the game played well. They were mostly responsible for the turnaround in the first half and the sixteen-point half-time lead.
Equally impressive was the play of the second string. Luis, a potential starter as the season progresses, led the way with 14 points followed by Alleyne with seven and three others (Ejiofor, Dunlap, and Wilcher) with five.
Wilcher had five assists and only one turnover in 19 minutes of play. His ability to speedily push the ball upcourt is apparent to all. Dunlap not only scored five points but also took down five rebounds. Ejiofor did miss some layups and needs to work on his skills around the basket. However, he was not to be denied as he fought for position under the boards, most noticeably on offense. His seven rebounds led the team and he performed dutifully in giving Soriano a rest.
It can be expected that all will make contributions and improve as the season wears on.
Takeaway Three: The formula for success starts with defense
Coach Pitino has stressed defense right from the start of his tenure as the Johnnies coach. Though smaller and less skilled than the Red Storm, the Crusaders at first moved the ball efficiently. At the 10:54 mark of the first half, they were hitting on seventy percent of their field goal attempts and fifty percent of their three-point attempts.
Then the Johnnies’ defense became more targeted. Defenders such as Alleyne and Taylor were in the game playing quick and in-your-face defense. The Crusaders stumbled under the pressure.
By the game’s end, those shooting percentages dropped to 36 percent on field goal attempts and 33 percent on threes.
Coach Pitino has stated, even during early season losses, that the defensive effort was always there. But, as a player masters shooting and passing skills, defensive skills are also honed to approach a high level of performance.
After the Utah game in which Joel Soriano was responsible for defending talented big men taller than he, Coach Pitino congratulated him for playing the talented Utah squad by using his body to make the Utes uncomfortable without drawing fouls.
Alleyne and Taylor have displayed superior defensive skills.
Defensive technique makes a difference and, with each passing game, though there may be momentary breakdowns, the team has recently been righting itself and performing admirably.
The next four games are winnable to lead into the Big East season. The team has displayed defensive improvement between games and within games. There is a nice blend of experience and young emerging talent. There is leadership amidst the upperclassmen.
The return of R.J. Luis provides a spark when he is in. The emergence of the freshmen, particularly Simeon Wilcher, into significant reserve roles suggests potential.
Joel Soriano survived the test from Utah’s frontline and showed in the Holy Cross game how he can dominate.
Continued focus on defensive improvement is the great challenge as well as focusing on one game at a time.