Throughout the Garden, energy was flowing. The stands featured more red than blue as the Connecticut Huskies and the St. Johns Red Storm were warming up. The fans were ready as Greg Banks performed a stirring rendition of the Star Spangled Banner before the game to great applause.
Daniss Jenkins was ready, hitting a three from the top of the key, giving the Johnnies a 3-0 lead 13 seconds into the game. The Huskies responded quickly, breaking down the Johnnies’ pressure and attacking after missed Johnnies shots to jump to a 14-5 lead at the 15:28 mark of the half.
A Jenkins layup cut the lead to seven just before a television timeout. Coming out of the time out, Brady Dunlap hit a three, followed by a second three from Jenkins, and the Johnnies were down by one, 14-13.
The lead jostled back and forth, and the Johnnies were picking up points from the bench. Taylor was fouled on a drive across the paint and made both free throws. R. J. Luis missed a driving layup, and Joel Soriano put back an offensive rebound. The Johnnies were up. 25-22.
The Huskies’ speed kept them in the game as they pushed the ball up the court against the Johnnies’ pressure. When the Johnnies got back in time, the Huskies struggled to get good shots off against what was a rotating Red Storm defense. In the first half, many Connecticut shots were taken with the shot clock nearly expiring, and the shooting percentage in these circumstances was low.
With six minutes to play, Luis took a defensive rebound, sprinted up the court, and hit a jumper from the top of the key, giving the Johnnies a five-point lead. Connecticut called time out ten seconds later. Johnnie fans rose to their feet to give the Red Storm a lengthy standing ovation. A fan stated, “Beating the number one team in the country. That would be something.” Optimism reigned.
A minute later, Cam Spencer, who ultimately led the Huskies in scoring, hit a three-pointer, and the score was tied.
Jenkins, who had played the entire first half, came out with two minutes to play. Nahiem Alleyne replaced him and hit two jumpers, and the Johnnies took a 37-36 lead into halftime.
Connecticut was relatively even with the Johnnies in shooting, but the Huskies led in almost every statistical category. The Johnnies only led in two categories: they had four steals to three for the Huskies, and they committed fewer fouls (five) to the Huskies (eight). Both teams went four for eight on three-point attempts.
No one scored for the first two minutes. Then, the UConn guards took over. Super freshman Stephon Castle hit a jumper, and Spencer hit a three after a Chris Ledlum dunk. The Huskies were up by two at the 17:12 mark. Luis entered the game, and his athleticism began to show, taking down rebounds and hitting layups, keeping the Johnnies in the game. A Chris Ledlum dunk at the 13:16 mark put the Johnnies back in the lead. Could the Red Storm keep up the pace?
Twenty seconds later, another Spencer three initiated an 8-0 run as Connecticut took a six-point lead. It was the play of the UConn guards that was sparking their efforts. Soriano, assisted by Drissa Traore, hit a layup and converted a free throw, cutting the lead to four.
It was the closest the Johnnies would get. Though the tall centers on Connecticut spent much of the half in foul trouble, Soriano could not overcome the quick hands of other UConn defenders who hounded him whenever he got the ball down low. On the Johnnies side, Jenkins played 36 minutes and paced the Johnnies with 19 points, thirteen of which came in the first half. His success diminished in the second half, and none of his teammates were there to pick the team up.
Takeaway #1: Daniss Jenkins needs a reliable sidekick
Daniss Jenkins has performed superbly in the past two games, particularly in the first half. His shooting percentage in the second half has dropped off. Jenkins averaged 37.5 minutes of play in the two games. Jordan Dingle is the next most frequently used Johnny, with an average of 29 minutes per game. Third on the list is R.J. Luis, with an average of 18.5 minutes, then Nahiem Alleyne, with 12.5 minutes per game.
In contrast, Castle and Spencer played 39 of the forty-minute contest, and fellow guard Tristen Newton played 37 minutes. Familiarity is established between guard tandems, in this case, a trio of guards, when being on the floor together.
The Johnnies have played 22 games and have not settled on a backcourt that plays together for a significant period in games. Injuries have interfered but it is time to settle on a unit that spends significant time together on the court.
R.J. Luis is a jolt of energy when on the court. Is this jolt best used to impact the start of the game or to come in when the flow of the game requires a jolt? The vote here is for a jolt partway through the game when needed.
So the backcourt of choice is now of Jenkins and Dingle or Alleyne. Nahiem Alleyne is the stronger defender and has recently demonstrated a touch with his jumper.
Lastly, who can best relieve Jenkins to cut back on his minutes and keep him fresh? It could be freshman Simeon Wilcher, who flashed promise in the Villanova game. If not Wilcher, then Alleyne seems the stronger choice.
Takeaway #2: The press was not even a threat
Is the inbound press after every made basket the best strategy? The goals of the press are threefold. First, to cause a turnover, and second, to delay the opponents from setting up their offense, possibly leading to a rushed shot due to the thirty-second rule to shoot. Lastly, it is to wear down opponents.
Regarding turnovers, the Villanova Wildcats struggled with the pressure in the backcourt, even in the second game after seeing it in the first contest. The result was several turnovers. The Johnnies’ pressure was less successful in creating turnovers against Xavier and Connecticut.
In terms of delaying teams from setting up their offense, there were a couple of moments in the first half of the Connecticut game when the Huskies were faced with putting up a shot with the shot clock near zero. But more often, the talented Huskie guards broke through the pressure quickly and found themselves with two-on-one or three-on-two opportunities. Similarly to Xavier, UConn relied on their three gifted starting guards to beat the Johnnies’ press. Only the Villanova game found the pressure a clear strategy.
Lastly, it is not opponents who the pressure has worn down. The Johnnies have struggled during the second half of many of their games.
One last observation. After Dingle hit two field goals, cutting the Huskies lead to eleven with 5:49, the Red Storm dropped the press after a made basket. They hustled back to get set in their defense. In their next seven possessions, covering a period of 3 minutes 49 seconds, the Huskies had two turnovers, missed three three-pointers, and drew fouls twice, hitting three out of four attempts. Unfortunately, the Johnnies’ offense had little success, while the defense provided opportunities to catch up.
Takeaway #3: Foul shooting and three-point shooting continues to kill St. John’s
When playing a more talented team, it is most difficult to be successful when hitting 66.7% of one’s free throws. When hitting 28.6% of three-point attempts, it is almost impossible.
While prepping for a game against the team he played on the past year, Nahiem Alleyne seemed on fire, hitting threes and midrange, off the backboard, jumpers, hardly ever missing. Jordan Dingle was also nailing his jumpers.
That pregame confidence failed to translate to the in-game setting. Jenkins took one shot for every three minutes on the court. Alleyne took a shot for every 4.7 minutes on the court, Dingle had a shot for every 2.7 minutes, and Luis had one for every 2.5 minutes.
It’s pretty even shooting frequency except for Alleyne, who hit two out of three shots, the only one hitting more than half his attempts.
More playing time and an effort to isolate Alleyne for open shots may be something for the coaching staff to consider.
The Johnnies have lost five out of six after a two-point win over Providence on January 10, 2024. Coming up is a very winnable game against a struggling DePaul team on February 6. Two away games against Marquette, then Providence follows, and it will indeed be challenging.
The team is reportedly healthy, and an established rotation needs implementation. The DePaul game gives the coaching staff an opportunity to make final decisions about the rotation, and the team needs to come out on fire in every game, even against DePaul. The season is far from over, but if the team wants to make the tournament, St. John’s must beat DePaul and take one of their two games against Marquette and Providence.