QUEENS, NY — As St. John’s head coach Steve Lavin put it in his opening statement during the postgame press conference: “It was a tale of two halves tonight. Bucknell won the first, St. John’s won the second.”
From the Red Storm’s perspective, the first half showed a one-dimensional offense that relied on transition and settling for shots from the perimeter that all too often didn’t fall, while the second half was a more balanced approach, completed by Phil Greene’s 12 points en route to a 67-63 win.
Ultimately, St. John’s won the game on the defensive end as Steve Lavin elected to play zone midway through the second half. Bucknell carved up the man-to-man defense in the opening stanza for 35 points on 53.6% FG, but struggled in the second half because of it shooting 39%.
“I think this was a quality win for our team, given the stage in the season. Bucknell is going to be a handful for any opponent they play this year,” said St. John’s head coach Steve Lavin. “For us, the zone defense was the difference. The ability to locate shooters out of the zone was more effective than the man to man defense in the first half.”
Sophomore Chris Obekpa — one of the top shot-blockers in the nation — swatted aside seven Bucknell shots on the evening, and St. John’s blocked 13 for the game.
The early stages of the second half replicated the first as Bucknell pushed their lead to 43-36, but St. John’s went on a 23-8 run — led by two three-pointers by Greene on consecutive possessions — to all but put the game away.
Lavin explained that his group “problem solved” in the second half by flashing a zone that they didn’t play one possession of in the opening half, and taking away Bucknell’s three-point opportunities; they were just 2-9 in the half.
The opening half saw Cameron Ayers torch St. John’s for 16 points on 7-10 shooting. Ayers was probably the best player on the floor the entire night, but he had to work much harder for his points in the second half. Ayers finished with a game-high 25 points.
“I think this is a game we lose in the last two years, rather than how we pulled away tonight. Stay with it and problem solve.”
Problem solve or not, this St. John’s team is still a work in progress, and Lavin understands that.
“We made progress, but still have a long way to go. Tonight was a step in the right direction for our team. It’s a group that each day and each practice makes progress…It’s a group that in late January, early February will find its stride.”
The glaring issue for St. John’s — and this is no mystery — is the inability to shoot even a respectable percentage from the perimeter.
Entering Tuesday night’s game against Bucknell, St. John’s was one of the worst three-point shooting team in the country, connecting on just two shots from the perimeter all season (2-21, 8.7%). Granted, this is an extremely small sample size as the Johnnies had only played two games all year, but the first half against Bucknell did little to prove they are even moderately adequate shooting.
The Red Storm were 1-8 in the first half with freshman Rysheed Jordan hitting the lone shot. D’Angelo Harrison was 0-3 to move to 1-14 for the season.
There is no doubting how talented D’Angelo Harrison, Jakarr Sampson, and Rysheed Jordan are — especially in transition — but not having any legitimate threats from the outside makes them extremely one-dimensional.
When playing against a team like Bucknell, who rarely gambles on defense on the perimeter — they turned their opponent over the least amount in the country last season, yet still had a high defensive efficiency — the opposition is mighty content ensuring St. John’s stays out of the lane and beats them from the outside.
“Bucknell came in with a gameplan of packing the paint…kind of like eight in the box in football,” explained Lavin. “We have to do a better job of moving the ball and getting on the glass. Obviously, when someone is open they have to hit threes, but we are still trying to find that rhythm.”
Will St. John’s improve? If we are to go by history, probably not. A season ago they were in the bottom ten in three-point shooting hitting 27.1% of their attempts. However, if Phil Greene and D’Angelo Harrison at least develop into threats from the perimeter, the offense adds a much needed dimension. Fortunately, Greene may be on the verge of finding his stroke and being that threat as he was 2-4 on 3PT and 7-12 FG tonight.
“You can’t have your players hesitant, fearful, stymied, and afraid to take jump shots. There are going to be some grinding out and methodical-type games where we can wear teams down with our athleticism and going inside, but I don’t want them to be afraid to shoot when they have an open shot,” said Lavin.
The prior two years, St. John’s could get away with the excuse of being a young team who was learning how to win, but not this season. With Harrison, Greene, and Sir’Dominic Pointer all upperclassmen, this is supposed to be the year St. John’s makes noise in the new-look Big East and gets back to the NCAA Tournament.
“Problem solving” was something St. John’s did tonight to come away with a victory. If developing a more consistent and reliable scoring game from the perimeter is next on the list — no easy feat — St. John’s will be on their way soon enough.