St. John’s “problem solves” in comeback win over Bucknell

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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.

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Sunday’s NCAA Tournament Elite Eight schedule, tip times, and announcer pairings

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Regional Finals – Sunday, March 26

2:20 p.m.,CBS, New York
No. 7 South Carolina vs. No. 4 Florida (Verne Lundquist, Jim Spanarkel, Allie LaForce)

5:05 p.m., CBS, Memphis
No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 2 Kentucky (Jim Nantz, Grant Hill, Bill Raftery, Tracy Wolfson)

Steve Alford: ‘I’m very happy at UCLA’

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UCLA head coach Steve Alford was still processing an 86-75 season-ending loss to Kentucky in the Sweet 16 on Friday night when he had to answer questions about another blueblood program.

Sine the dismal of Tom Crean at Indiana, Alford has been one of the names rumored to be in the mix for the coaching vacancy. A reporter in the press conference in Memphis didn’t even get a chance to finish his question before Alford cut him off and a publicly state that he was happy in Westwood.

“I said it last week, and I’ll reiterate it again even more so, I guess, that I love Los Angeles,” Alford said. “To begin with, it’s a beautiful place, and our family has fallen in love with it. I’ve got two sons now, Kory first and now Bryce, that have graduated. Bryce is done, so he’s graduating from UCLA, so I’ve got two sons that are graduates from there, a daughter that loves the school she’s going to in Thousand Oaks. I’m very happy. I’m at UCLA. I don’t know of a lot of people that are out there wanting to leave UCLA.

“This is a pretty special place. We’ve worked awfully hard. Our staff has worked hard. We’ve got the No. 2 recruiting class coming in next year. We’re opening a brand-new, state-of-the-art, 60-plus million practice facility, Mo Ostin Center, that is going to be spectacular that we’ve worked awfully hard to be a part of that, and I want to see that through, and we’ve got some special kids that are coming to join us.

“I’m very, very happy where I’m at, and hopefully, that’ll continue.”

Alford won a national championship with the Hoosiers in 1987, scoring more than 2,400 points in his career under head coach Bob Knight. He has been with UCLA since 2013, reaching the Sweet 16 in three of his four seasons with the Bruins.

Crean was fired on March 16 after nine season in Bloomington.

Lonzo Ball has officially declared for the 2017 NBA Draft

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Following a season-ending loss in the Sweet 16 of the 2017 NCAA Tournament, UCLA freshman point guard unsurprisingly announced that he will enter the NBA Draft.

“That was my final game for UCLA. I appreciate the fans,” Ball told reporters.

The 6-foot-6 point guard has a strong case to be the No. 1 overall pick. It could be almost too enticing for the Los Angeles Lakers to pass on a Southern Cal product if the ping pong balls fall in their favor. New Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka were in Memphis for Friday night’s Sweet 16 matchup with Kentucky.

Ball, in an All-American freshman season with the Bruins, averaged 14.7 points, 6.1 rebounds and a nation’s best 7.6 assists per game, while shooting 56 percent from the field and 42 percent from three.

He ended his college career with an 86-75 loss to the Wildcats, scoring 10 points, off 4-of-10 shooting, with eight assists.

VIDEO: Florida’s Chris Chiozza beats Wisconsin at the buzzer

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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NEW YORK — So you didn’t think the NCAA Tournament had enough excitement this year?

Wisconsin and Florida solved that problem for you.

The Badgers started things, as they erased a 12-point deficit in the final 4:15 to force overtime, a stretch that included an 8-0 run at the end of regulation that was capped by a Zak Showalter running three with 2.5 seconds left on the clock to tie the game at 72.

Wisconsin jumped out to a lead in overtime, but the combination of an inability to make free throws and and this epic chasedown block from Canyon Barry left the door open for the Gators, who eventually won the game on this running three from Chris Chiozza:

What.

A.

Game.

If we get a better one than this, I just hope I’m courtside for it.

KeVaughn Allen led the way for the Gators with 35 points, and no one else on the Gators scored more than eight points, but it didn’t matter. The Gators are still headed to the Elite 8, and Mike White will have a chance to play for the right to go to the Final Four in his first NCAA Tournaments.

Replacing a legend like Billy Donovan was never going to be easy, but White is doing an admirable job.

The other subplot here: With the win, Florida becomes the third member of the SEC in the Elite 8, and with a regional final against South Carolina on Sunday afternoon, it guarantees that there will be at least one SEC team in the Final Four.

While there were celebrations in the Florida locker room, Wisconsin’s was one of devastation.

The Badgers started four seniors, including tournament stalwarts Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes, who played in their 17th career NCAA Tournament games.

Hayes had 22 points, but he’s going to be haunted by the free throws he missed. He was 7-for-14 from the line on the night, including four missed freebies in overtime. The end was similarly heart-breaking for Koenig, as he was a non-factor in overtime due to an injury he suffered on the possession before Showalter’s game-tying three.

Both of them are going to spend years thinking ‘What if?’ That’s how the NCAA Tournament works.

Everyone leaves in tears, either because they’re cutting down the nets at the Final Four or because their season — their career — just came to an end.

Hayes and Koenig were no different.

VIDEO: Canyon Barry saves Florida with epic chase down block

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Florida’s Canyon Berry had the best chase down block since LeBron James in the 2016 NBA Finals.

It kept Wisconsin’s lead at two points and gave the Gators a chance to tie and, eventually, win the game.

Look at this: