Fans were still determining which St. John team would appear. Would it be the team that battled down to the wire with Creighton a week before or the team that succumbed early to Seton Hall, beaten badly on both the offensive and defensive boards?
An interesting drill could be seen before the game’s start. Backcourt players would take a pass and a cut around a screener. A defender would step forward, altering the dribbler’s path to the basket. Taking two to three dribbles after clearing the defender, Jenkins, Alleyne, Conway, Dunlap, Taylor, and Wilcher were seen lofting 15 to 18-foot jumpers. The drill’s goal was clear – getting shots off a dribble and maintaining control while shooting.
With Jordan Dingle sidelined for a second straight game due to illness, the St. John’s starters were Daniss Jenkins, Chris Ledlum, Joel Soriano, RJ Luis, and Brady Dunlap.
Marquette started the game with an end-to-end pressure defense. The Johnnies turned the ball twice in the first minute and a half. But once they beat the pressure, Ledlum drove into the paint and found Luis under the basket. A quick pass led to a Luis dunk, and the score was knotted at two. Thirty seconds later, after the Golden Eagles went ahead 4-2, Ledlum again attacked the basket and found an open Luis, this time on the left wing. A quick pass and Luis responded with a three-pointer for a 5-4 Red Storm lead.
The two plays were preludes to an outstanding performance by both Johnnies, which was to follow.
The Marquette game plan early on was clear – attack, attack, attack. There was little long-range shooting, and Coach Pitino called timeout at the 16:23 mark after another Marquette layup, this time by Kam Jones, assisted by point guard Tyler Kolek.
After the timeout, Marquette tried a zone trap in the Red Storm backcourt. The Red Storm quickly escaped, and the Golden Eagles dropped back into position. The full court pressure on every inbounds pass was discontinued as the Johnnies had found a way to beat it.
St. John’s was now in a 2-1-2 zone on defense, and the lead jockeyed back and forth for the following ten minutes. The Johnnies’ zone caused the high-tempo Golden Eagles to slow their attack, leading to careless turnovers. Though the zone left some open areas for jump shots, Marquette struggled to convert. Halftime statistics showed the Golden Eagles missing all ten three-point attempts they took.
With a team of Sean Conway, Zubi Ejiofor, Jenkins, Ledlum, and Luis, the Johnnies began to pull away. One exceptional play by Ejiofor stood out. The St. John’s centers were set up high in the paint to set screens. With 5:43 to play in the half, Ejiofor took a pass and, instead of handing off to a cutting St. John’s player, dribbled aggressively to the hoop down the left of the lane, converting and drawing a foul. When he hit his foul shot, the Johnnies were up by four, 26-22. It was the start of a 9-2 run that found the Johnnies up by ten with a minute and a half to play.
Marquette recovered to cut the lead to six by halftime, but an appreciative fan base gave the Red Storm enthusiastic applause as they left the court.
The Red Storm were leading by four, and Marquette’s 28 points scored in the first half was well below their scoring average. But one statistic stood out. It was rebounding. Seton Hall had outrebounded the Red Storm 43-25 four days earlier. Before the game, Coach Pitino stated that the team had to toughen up and execute each play as if it were the game’s last. And the team responded. Led by Ledlum’s nine rebounds in the half, the Johnnies outrebounded the Golden Eagles by twelve, 24 to 12.
Johnnie fans were eager for the game to resume, and, remembering that Marquette had been a ranked team throughout the season, they were cautiously optimistic.
It did not take long for Red Storm fans’ anxiety to rise. Kolek fed David Joplin twelve seconds into the half for a three-pointer to split the Johnnies’ lead to three. With the Johnnies starting lineup back in the game and the Golden Eagles again being focused on Soriano, the Red Storm looked to R. J. Luis, and he delivered. Over the next four minutes, he and Ledlum were the Johnnies’ offense, with Luis contributing nine points and Ledlum three. During the same four minutes, the Golden Eagles’ long-range shooting came alive with additional threes from Kolek and Kam Jones.
The first official timeout was called at 15:43 after a Jenkins dunk, assisted by Luis, and a defensive rebound by Soriano. In their vintage 1990s uniforms, the Red Storm continued in the lead, 48-43. With all of the three-point shooting by Marquette, the Golden Eagles had reduced the Red Storm lead by a point.
The Johnnies came out of the timeout in a man-to-man defensive to address the sudden long-range shooting by Marquette. Defensive adjustments by Marquette challenged Luis more effectively when he received the ball. It was successful as in the last fifteen minutes of play, he would score but an additional two points.
With 10:50 to play after a Glenn Taylor layup, the score was tied 56 to 56. In the next four and a half minutes, Marquette went on a 15-2 run, leading 71-58 with 6:20 to play. The Johnnies showed heart and responded with their own run, reducing the lead to one with 38 seconds to play. A missed free throw, a missed open three-pointer, and a missed thirty-footer as time was running out doomed the Johnnies to their second one-point loss to a ranked team in a week.
Takeaway #1: Luis and Ledlum display takeover ability
This season has found opponents, when playing the Red Storm for the first time, tending to focus on stopping captain Joel Soriano. This game with Marquette was no different. Someone had to step up, and that someone was R. J. Luis. Luis was hot at the start of each half, scoring five points in the first two and a half minutes of the first half, then opening the second half with nine points in the first four minutes. On his way to a twenty-point, four rebound, three-steal effort, Luis brought a slashing style to the Johnnies’ offense that complemented Soriano’s powerful play.
Chris Ledlum is a blend of Soriano and Luis. When an opening to drive emerges. Ledlum will not hesitate to attack, yet he can also score from the perimeter 15 to 18 feet away, logging a double-double with 13 points and a team-high 11 rebounds. Due to Luis’s early season injuries and Ledlum’s ankle injury a few weeks ago, the trio of Luis, Ledlow, and Soriano is just beginning to discover how they best complement each other.
What will the future bring? Will the recent success of Luis and Ledlum take some of the focus off Soriano and open up more one-on-one opportunities for the Johnnies’ captain? Will the Red Storm develop a more efficient inside-out game with Soriano passing out of double teams to his teammates? Will the beneficiaries of these passes include Luis and Ledlum? There is excellent potential amidst these three frontcourt players.
Takeaway #2: Domination on the boards
On January 16, 2024, Seton Hall outrebounded the Red Storm 43-25. Against Marquette, it was almost the reverse: 41 rebounds for the Johnnies and 28 for the Golden Eagles. Against a taller Creighton, the Red Storm held their own by taking down 41 boards to the Bluejays’ 40. In their other Big East loss against league leader Connecticut, the Johnnies outrebounded the Huskies 34 to 31.
With the exception of the Seton Hall game, rebounding has been a strength of this team.
The Luis, Ledlum, Soriano trio is aided by 6” 9” sophomore forward Zuby Ejiofor, who took down four rebounds in 12 minutes of playing time, while, in comparison, starting forward Brady Dunlap took down four boards in 33 minutes of play. Ejiofor also outscored Dunlap eight points to two. Dunlap did contribute four assists, tying Ledlum as the lead contributor on the team. He also made an outstanding play down the stretch, leaping for an errant pass and forwarding the ball, while in the air, to Jenkins, who drowned a three, cutting the Red Storm deficit to four with two and a half minutes to play.
Coach Pitino has made an interesting decision about how to use his frontcourt players and which combinations are most productive. This is still a work in progress.
The squad, criticized for its lack of intensity during the loss to Seton Hall, was praised by Coach Pitino in the post-game news conference as he summoned the game up, “Tonight there was a moral victory. We were undermanned, and I thought our guys showed amazing character down the stretch to fight back against a very seasoned ballclub.”
Takeaway #3: Defense was a tale of two halves
In the first half of the game, Marquette shot a respectable 41%, mostly on drives to the basket. They shot zero for ten from three-point range. The Johnnies led at the half 34 to 28.
But everything changed in the second half. The Johnnies started the half with the same group that started the game. Due to the heroics of Luis and Ledlum as the half began, the Johnnies matched the Marquette shooting during the first five minutes. During this time, the Golden Eagles shot 72% from the floor and 60% from long distance.
After a timeout, Marquette adjusted, taking away some of the open lanes Luis had taken advantage of. Meanwhile, the Red Storm’s adjustments could have been more impactful.
So what happened during the first fourteen minutes of the second half, when the Golden Eagles turned a deficit of six into a lead of thirteen? Several things.
At the onset of the half, Marquette came out with a ball movement strategy that called to look to pass from one side of the court to the opposite wing as the St. John’s zone shifted from side to side. On several occasions, the Johnnies could not adjust their zone in time to defend.
Secondly, reigning Big East player of the year, Tyler Kolek, was able to penetrate when the Johnnies shifted to a man-to-man defense five minutes into the half. The loss of the Johnnies’ best perimeter defender, Nahiem Alleyne, to an ankle injury in the first half was significant. Alleyne might have been more effective guarding Kolek than his teammates. Once Kolek gained the confidence that he could beat his man, he could take advantage of Red Storm defenders having to switch off as he freed himself. Johnnie fans were heard commenting on how challenging it was to cover him. He and forward Oso Ighodaro ran several successful pick-and-roll plays, freeing Ighodaro for short four to six-foot jumpers in the middle of the paint.
Thirdly, poor shot selection in the form of long jump shots led to Marquette’s fast breaks after they took down rebounds. One such play found Dunlap ahead of most of the field on a break. Instead of attacking the basket, he pulled up for an off-the-dribble 25-footer, which missed. Marquette quickly pushed the ball downcourt for a layup after the miss.
Lastly, there were times that the Johnnies, pressing the boards for offensive rebounds, were unsuccessful. When able to grab the rebound, the Golden Eagles quickly drove down the court with an advantage.
The Johnnies took down 16 offensive rebounds during the game, but during the nine minutes when the Golden Eagles built their 13-point lead, the Johnnies did not pull down one offensive rebound.
To the team’s credit, they never quit. The team switched back to the match-up zone and reduced the deficit to two with a minute and a half to play. The only points for Marquette in the last 6:20 were two Kolek free throws. It was excellent defense, but the offense came up just a hair short.
Villanova will come into town with their leader, Justin Moore, back in action. He led their team with 15 points in a one-point loss to Uconn the same day the Johnnies were being defeated by one by Marquette. Each unit will see this game on January 24 as a critical game.
The Johnnies beat the Wildcats by ten on January 6, 2024. The Johnnies’ full-court press after making baskets stymied Villanova that day. Expect the Wildcats to be prepared this time around. The addition of Moore back in the lineup and the Johnnies potentially missing both Nahiem Alleyne and Jordan Dingle will make this game a tossup.
Joel Soriano had a big game with twenty points and eight rebounds in 35 minutes of play when St. Johns beat Villanova in their arena. Was it because Soriano matches up favorably with the Wildcats? If he can repeat the performance and guard Jordan Dingle is healthy and ready to play, it would make this game very winnable for the Johnnies. Fans need to attend, as the Villanova fans will undoubtedly make their presence known.