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Three Takeaways: St. John’s narrowly beats Hofstra

Balanced scoring and steady foul-shooting a plus; inconsistent defense a concern

St. John’s Red Storm guard RJ Luis Jr. (12) brings the ball up court in the second half against the Hofstra Pride at UBS Arena. Wendell Cruz/USA TODAY Sports

St. Johns opened their first of three games inside UBS Arena for the 2023-24 season with a contest against local university Hofstra. The stands filled up quickly with red appearing throughout, with faithful Johnnie fans everywhere.

Just before the first half began Joel Soriano appeared courtside with head coach, Rick Pitino, to be recognized for taking down his 1,000 career rebound during the Johnnies’ victory over Xavier on December 20, 2023.

First Half

R.J. Luis started in place of Chris Ledlum who was on the sideline in sweats, recovering from a sprained ankle suffered in the Connecticut game a week earlier. Joining Luis in the starting lineup were Soriano, point guard Daniss Jenkins, Glenn Taylor, and Jordan Dingle.

Twelve seconds into the game Soriano set a high screen freeing Taylor, who cut past him taking a pass from Jenkins and laying the ball in for an early two-point lead. Then at the 17:50 mark of the game after a defensive rebound, Dingle found Soriano underneath for an attempted layup. Drawing a shooting foul, Soriano made one of two shots and the Johnnies were up 3-0.

The Johnnies had been controlling the defensive boards at the beginning of the contest but seven-foot Silas Sunday corralled an offensive rebound and fed Darlinstone Dubar who hit a jumper cutting the Johnnies lead to one, 3-2. It was a slow start for the offenses on both teams.

The lead jockeyed back and forth. It was tied at seven, nine, eleven and thirteen. At the 10:49 mark of the first half, Nahiem Alleyne made a three-pointer from the right wing off a Jenkins feed to put the Johnnies up 16-13. Two minutes later Hofstra high scorer Tyler Thomas made a three to put the Pride into the lead 18-16.

Jenkins drove deep into the paint, drawing the defense to him, then dished off to Zuby Ejiofor, who dunked the ball, again tying the score at eighteen. St John’s went into a zone defense for a few minutes, unnerving the Pride, which resulted in two careless turnovers. Despite what appeared to be an effective zone defense the Red Storm returned to man-to-man coverage shortly thereafter, perhaps as a deterrent to allowing Hofstra sharpshooters open looks from three-point land.

Luis hit a three with six minutes to play to give the Johnnies the lead for good. Jordan Dungle then got hot hitting two threes and two free throws in one minute and the Johnnies were up by four, 29-21 with 4:33 to play.

The Hofstra team played with Pride, as their nickname suggested, and kept the game close through the end of the half with the Johnnies leading 36-32 after a fifty-foot heave by Taylor with the time running out clanged off the rim.

Halftime

At the half the team statistics were revealing. The Johnnies were shooting 48% and had gone 5 out of 10 on three-point attempts. In contrast, the heralded guards of Hofstra had shot but 30 percent from a long distance. The Johnnies had ten assists on 14 made baskets, led by Jenkins with six. However, there was a surprising statistic: the shorter Hofstra team had taken down 16 rebounds to the Red Storm’s 14.

With the score but four points apart fans discussed what adjustments might occur during halftime. The consensus was for St. John’s frontline players to become more aggressive in hitting the boards. The likelihood of continuing to hit threes at a fifty percent rate was not to be expected. The front liners needed to step up.

Second Half

Soriano and Luis led the way as the Johnnies began to hit the boards relentlessly as the half began. With three minutes gone, after a Luis free throw, the Johnnies led by nine, 46-35. Luis was all over the court making steals taking down rebounds and assisting teammates. For a young man, being given limited playing time as he recovered from his injuries, he was making the most of it.

Hofstra was not ready to surrender. Thomas got hot and a six-point run by the Pride cut the St John’s lead to four with fourteen minutes to play. The outcome of the contest was truly uncertain.

Then thirty seconds later high scorer Tyler Thomas picked up his fourth foul and had to come out. Johnnie fans breathed a sigh of relief. But Thomas’ teammates picked up the slack.

With 12:14 to play Soriano, after missing a layup, recovered his miss. He fed out to Alleyne in the left wing, who immediately forwarded the ball to an open Sean Conway. From the left of the top of the arc, Conway swished an eighteen-footer and drew a foul. Making the foul shot, Conway’s four points were his only points in the game. But they were most needed, giving the Johnnies needed breathing room as the game wore on. The Pride refused to crumble.

Hofstra players seemed to find holes in a Red Storm defense as the game went on. The Johnnies were unable to stop Hofstra guards from penetrating the paint for layups sprinkling in an occasional open three. Four Jaquan Carlos layups and a Tyler Thomas three with two seconds to go found the Pride down by three. The Johnnies called a time-out and set up a play to inbound the ball to Jenkins. He was fouled and calmly hit his two free throws securing a Johnnies win 84 to 79.

Takeaway One: Balanced Scoring

By the game’s end, five Johnnies had scored in double figures. Most significant was how each of the scorers stepped up as game dynamics shifted. In the first half after Soriano scored seven of the first eleven Red Storm points, Hofstra made adjustments. They no longer were focused on denying him the ball but, once he received it, they dropped teammates back, swatting the ball out of his arms. St. Johns recognized this defensive change and, in response, began to find an open Dingle, who hit two threes and kept the Johnnies in the lead as the half wore on.

In the second half, it was clear that the Johnnies set a goal of hitting the boards more aggressively. Luis stepped up. He was given limited minutes in the game but made the most of his time on the court. In 29 minutes of play, he led the team with ten rebounds, seven in the second half as the Johnnies turned a two-rebound deficit at the half into a resounding 18-rebound surplus.

Lastly, Daniss Jenkins spent most of his time in the first half assisting teammates. However, as the Pride was fighting to get back into the game it was Jenkins scoring, mostly on deft drives to the basket that kept them at bay. Registering four points in the first half, he followed with seventeen, most with the game on the line leading the Red Storm to victory.

Takeaway Two: Foul Shooting

The Red Storm’s team foul shooting has often been a legitimate concern for the team. Entering the game the Johnnies were converting on seventy percent of their foul shot attempts. During this game, the team hit 25 out of 31 attempts, 80.6 percent. If the team had converted their usual seventy percent of their shots, they would have only made 18, threatening their five-point victory.

Takeaway Three: Defense in the Second Half

Jaquan Carlos of the Pride had a scoring average of 10.7 points per game. In this game against the Johnnies, he was relatively a non-factor until there were three and a half minutes left in the game. Up until that time he had scored two points while playing thirty-six minutes. Then on four consecutive Hofstra possessions, Carlos dribbled past the Johnnies defender. He broke into the Red Storm paint and converted a layup.

It is fair to ask what happened. Were the Johnnies so concerned with high scorers Thomas and Dubar that they somehow missed Carlos’ efforts? For some reason were rim defenders drawn away from the rim? Was this a defensive breakdown?

The Pride shot a reasonable 44 percent in the first half. They were shut out for the first three minutes of the second half as the Johnnies built an eleven-point lead. Hofstra called a timeout, missed a three-point attempt and Soriano was fouled and hit two free throws. The Red Storm were up by thirteen. From that moment on the Pride made 57% of their field goal attempts.

A review of the game tape will identify the factors that led to this defensive collapse and corrections by the Red Storm will prepare the Johnnies for the challenging games ahead.

Outlook

In three days the Butler Bulldogs will bring a 10-3 record, 1-1 in the Big East, into Carnesecca Arena for a game with St. Johns. The Bulldogs have played above expectations. This game will require the Johnnies to be effectively functioning in all aspects of the game.

The balance on offense is very encouraging. The inconsistency of the defense is troublesome.

This is a veteran team that may or may not have Chris Ledlum available to play giving needed frontline depth. The growing recovery of R.J. Luis, making him available for full-time participation, is a potent addition to the lineup.

Coach Pitino has talked about growth steps for this team to reach its potential. Growth requires examination of performance. The experienced staff of the Johnnies will review, reach conclusions, and make adjustments. A win today was against the type of team that has given the Red Storm problems in the past – teams with good, quick guards that can shoot.