The Long Island Railroad car leaving Ronkonkoma railroad station was packed with Johnnies fans in red. Despite the team’s struggles, fans were coming to the Garden for a noontime matchup with the #20 Providence Friars.
With Andre Curbelo out for the game (coach’s decision) the Johnnies welcomed back David Jones, returning to the team after his father’s death. Jones’ slashing attacking style and his ability to assist Joel Soriano on both the offensive and defensive boards was something the Johnnies would need against a strong rebounding team in Providence.
The Johnnies opened the game with a starting lineup of Soriano, Posh Alexander, A. J. Storr, Dylan Addae-Wusu, and O’mar Stanley.
Providence won the opening tap and, facing a tight man to man defense from the Red Storm, did not get a shot off in 30 seconds and turned the ball over. It was a good start for the Johnnies’ defense.
Dylan Addae-Wusu scored the first five for St. John’s. At the 15:44 mark of the half David Jones entered the game (with a heavy heart) and hit a layup off a feed from O’Mar Stanley. The Johnnies led 11-5 .
At the 13-minute mark, Posh Alexander brought the ball up, directing traffic. He directed Rafael Pinzon into the right corner. He passed off to Pinzon in the corner then suddenly cut towards the basket. Pinzon returned the ball to Posh for a layup and 16-8 lead. It was a smooth, pretty play of perfect teamwork.
Kolby King entered the game soon after. He made himself known with his tight defense, being assigned to playmaker Jared Bynum. Bynum brought the ball up, spun to his left only to find King present denying him a clean shot and an attacking lane. Bynum responded by spinning to his right, then to his left. King stayed with him chest to chest. With the 30 second time clock running out Bynum took a 20-foot, off-balanced three that had no hope of connecting.
In his 17 minutes of playing time, King continued to play stellar defense.
At the 10:40 mark, seldom-used Drissa Traore entered the game and 10 seconds later dunked the ball assisted by Pinzon. The Johnnies led 25 to nine and all was going well.
A 7-0 run by the Friars was countered by Soriano, who hit a eight-footer from the right of the paint. It was a welcome sight for Johnnies fans as Soriano had struggled with his jump shot in recent games.
A steal by Addae-Wusu, a feed to Alexander racing down the left side ended with a perfect pass to Storr, who dunked the ball, was fouled and hit the free throw. The Johnnies lead was back up to 14, 30-16.
The history of the team this year has often found them building up a large lead early in the game, only to lose much of it as the half wore on. History repeated itself.
At the TV official timeout with 11:45 to play in the half and the Johnnies leading 21-9 the rebounding totals for the teams were tied at seven apiece. As the lead widened the Friars refocused and begin attacking the offensive boards with vigor. By the end of the half statistics revealed why the 14-point lead had been reduced to just two — the Friars had 12 offensive rebounds to two for St. Johns.
As the Friars attacked the offensive boards successfully the Johnnies defense in the half became disorganized. Providence guards found themselves open for threes in the corners. The Johnnies barely hung on to a two-point lead at the half. The momentum was clearly in the favor of the Friars, who had a large contingent of fans from the Rhode Island school in the stands becoming loud in their support.
Would the Johnnies regroup? Would adjustments be made to keep the Friars off the boards?
A Storr layup widened the lead to four. On the next Friar possession, the Johnnies, dropping back and intent on their defensive assignments, caused another 30-second violation.
For the next five minutes the Red Storm lead ranged from one to four points. Although tying the score once, the Friars never took the lead. With the Johnnies leading 46-43, King came in for Rafael Pinzon. Like his play in the first half, the freshman latched on to the Friars’ point guard and rendered whoever took on that role ineffective — no shots, no assists, no points.
David Jones blew by his defender to a layup and a 48-43 lead. Two jumpers by Jones and two free throws by Alexander found the Johnnies up by six with 11 minutes to play. King added a layup on a drive from the left corner to continue the six-point lead 56-50.
Pressure on Friar guards by both Alexander and King rendered them ineffective and the lead swelled to ten with a variety of Johnnies contributing on the way to a 73-68 victory. At game’s end both Alexander and Soriano were at mid-court, waving their hands and calling for Johnnie fans to rise to their feet. The Garden responded and the team left the court hopeful for the future after defeating a top-20 opponent.
Point of order, Alexander and King
The performance of the point guards was impactful. Alexander had 10 points, nine assists and played his usual stellar defense. He led the team in being on the court for 35 minutes and appears to clearly be recovered from his ankle injury.
Though his shooting touch has not returned, he did hit four of six from the free throw line. His leadership on the court was apparent, calling teammates to gather for short meetings on the court to re-establish focus.
Kolby King played half the minutes of Alexander but he made a significant contribution to the team’s success. His defense against whomever he was assigned to was impeccable. He totally locked up whoever he guarded. With point guards neutralized by King, the flow of the Friar offense was erratic.
King also scored five points, hitting two of three field goal attempts.
Being able to lock down opponents’ point guards provides hope that the team may, indeed, be ready to turn their seasonal prospects around even at this late time in the season.
Sometimes statistics tell a meaningful story. Sometimes they do not. Consider the following:
- In the first eight minutes of the first half the Johnnies and Friars each took down seven rebounds. The Johnnies were leading 21-9.
- The remaining twelve minutes of the first half found the Friars outrebounding the Johnnies 18 to 7. The Johnnies lead was reduced to two, 37 to 35.
- In the second half the Johnnies were outrebounded by the Friars but only by two, 24 to 22. The Johnnies outplayed the Friars by three points in the half on the way to their five point victory.
What changed in the second half?
An across-the-board effort aided the Red Storm. Four players had five or more rebounds, with Jones and Storr stepping up their work to end Providence possessions in the second half.
The Friar rebounding margin was established during the last 10 minutes of the first half when the nature of the play was more helter-skelter. With both teams were pushing the play, the Johnnies were not getting back downcourt after shot misses. In the second half the Johnnies were more focused on getting back into defensive positions. Having proper defensive positioning placed Johnnie defenders in a better position to box out and take down defensive rebounds.
Successful free throw shooting
The Johnnies hit 83.3 percent of free throw attempts (15/18), far better than their Big East average of 65%. The Johnnies shot under 60% in three of their last four games. With the Frias hitting 76.5 % of their attempts (13/17), the low-percentage shooting would have made the outcome on Saturday much different.
The Johnnies play DePaul at DePaul on Valentine’s Day — a winnable game, but the team and its fans felt the recent away game at Butler was also a winnable game.
Posh Alexander has performed impactfully in the last two games. David Jones performed well against Providence and will be motivated to play well against his former team, DePaul. AJ Storr continues to improve while Joel Soriano provides a consistent all-around play in the middle.
Will match ups call for Kolby King to play more frequently? Will Andre Curbelo still have a significant role?
There is some hope but still lots of questions. And after DePaul is a most challenging home game against Creighton.
One day at a time but this victory over Providence calls for hope.