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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POSTERIZED: Texas guard Kerwin Roach throws down Dunk of the Year candidate on Duke (VIDEO)

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Kerwin Roach is one of the best dunkers in college basketball, and he was at it again on Saturday afternoon in the PK80, as he went soaring in to throw down a dunk in the face of Duke forward Javin DeLaurier:

Luke Maye’s career-high 28 paces No. 9 North Carolina past Arkansas

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In hindsight, maybe we were a little too concerned about Luke Maye’s ability to anchor North Carolina’s front court.

In the toughest test that the Tar Heels have faced to date this season, Maye turned out the game of his life. He finished with career-highs of 28 points and 16 boards while tying a career-high with five assists and knocking down four threes as the No. 9 Tar Heels took care of Arkansas, 87-68, in the semifinals of the PK80.

The Tar Heels will advance to face the winner of this evening’s No. 4 Michigan State-UConn game.

But the story here is Maye, who became the first North Carolina player since Antawn Jamison to post 100 points and 50 boards in a season’s first five games. On the season, he’s averaging 20.8 points, 10.8 boards and 2.8 assists. He’s shooting better than 50 percent from three and nearly 60 percent from the floor. On a team that features a potential first-team all-american and the reigning Final Four Most Outstanding Player in Joel Berry II, it’s been Maye who has been the star of UNC’s season to date.

And there’s no reason to believe that this is a fluke, either.

Maye had 26 points and 10 boards in a win over a Northern Iowa team that just beat SMU and N.C. State. He had 20 points, nine boards and four assists against a good Bucknell team. He had 12 points, nine boards and five assists in a win at Stanford. And, of course, there was Friday afternoon’s performance.

What makes Maye’s development so important is the reliance of big men in Roy Williams’ system. He is one of the only high-major coaches that still builds his team around two big men. He values rebounding above all else. He runs his offense through post touches. The crux of his transition offense is the ability of his big men to beat their defenders down the floor.

Maye not only can do all of that, but his ability to make threes helps to space the floor.

After the year that he had last season, it’s not all that surprising that Maye was able to step in and have success this year.

But if you’re going to tell me that you thought Luke Maye would be doing this, I’m going to need to see the receipts.

No. 25 Alabama tops BYU in Barclays Center Classic

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NEW YORK (AP) — John Petty scored 16 points to spark No. 25 Alabama to a 71-59 win over BYU in the second game of the Barclays Center Classic on Friday.

Dazon Ingram added 15 for Alabama, which improved to 5-0, the best start for the Crimson Tide since 2012-13, when they began 6-0. Donta Hall had 12, and Collin Sexton finished with 10.

BYU fell to 3-2 with its second loss in its last three games. Yoeli Childs led the Cougars with 21 points.

In his third season, coach Avery Johnson is attempting to build Alabama into a program that can compete on a national level. And the matchup against BYU displayed why the Crimson Tide could be an intriguing team this season.

Alabama was able to build a 15-point lead in the second half following Riley Norris’ layup layup with 10:43 left. Part of that was because of the Crimson Tide’s ability to pressure BYU defensively. Alabama recorded six blocked shots and forced 11 turnovers.

But program building does mean growing pains. And the Crimson Tide’s youth also revealed itself in the second half. Following Petty’s 3 with 7:35 left, which gave Alabama a 61-47 lead, BYU outscored the Crimson Tide 8-2 in a span of 1:21 to cut the deficit to 63-55. Dalton Nixon made two free throws and Zac Seljaas made consecutive 3s for the Cougars in that stretch.

BYU got back into the game in part because of questionable shot selection in the second half from the Crimson Tide, who made 18 of 30 shots from the field before halftime.

Eight points was as close as BYU would get. Ingram knocked down two free throws, and Hall’s tip-in in the final two minutes gave the Crimson Tide the margin of victory.

BIG PICTURE

Alabama: Size matters. At least it does to the Crimson Tide. Alabama has 11 players 6-foot-5 or taller. That size and length allowed Alabama to create turnovers and contest shots, leading to fast breaks.

BYU: It may not be fair to say as Elijah Bryant goes, so does BYU. But Bryant, who entered the game averaging 21.5 points, was limited to three points in the first half and five for the game.

NOTES

The Crimson Tide entered the game having won their first four by an average of 18 points per game. Moreover, Alabama was holding opponents to .411 shooting from the field and .338 shooting from 3-point range, while blocking 6.8 shots and forcing 7.3 steals in those games. … The Cougars fell to 0-2 all-time against the Crimson Tide. In the only other meeting, BYU dropped a 77-74 decision on Dec. 30, 1957.

UP NEXT:

Alabama: Will play No. 14 Minnesota Saturday in the Barclays Center Classic.

BYU: Will play Massachusetts Saturday in Brooklyn.

Washington State knocks off No. 21 Saint Mary’s 84-79

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FULLERTON, Calif. (AP) — In less than 24 hours, Washington State went from playing another game of catch-up to dictating down the stretch against a ranked team.

Malachi Flynn scored 26 points and the Cougars held off No. 21 Saint Mary’s 84-79 to reach the title game of the Wooden Legacy on Friday.

In the opening round, Flynn hit a go-ahead 3-pointer with 5 seconds remaining to seal a 75-71 win against Saint Joseph’s after the Cougars rallied from 20 points down.

This time, the Cougars were the ones putting the Gaels (5-1) in a 16-point hole in the second half, and they stayed cool when Saint Mary’s got within three on a 3-pointer by Jordan Ford with 47 seconds left.

Robert Franks and Jeff Pollard made layups to preserve the win for the Cougars (5-0), who shot 62 percent in the second half.

“It was a 10:30 a.m. game, not too many people in the crowd, and we had to come out first and hit them with a lot of energy,” Flynn said.

Cougars coach Ernie Kent added, “On an off-day, college students usually sleep until 2.”

Washington State led 42-40 at halftime, just its second lead at the break this season. They outscored Saint Mary’s 42-39 in the second half just as they’ve done in every game so far.

“We continue to grow up a little bit with each challenge,” Kent said. “We’re already better than when we got on the plane to come here. The bigger the challenge, the bigger the stage, the more they rise up.”

Saint Mary’s opened the second half on a 10-4 spurt before Flynn’s basket tied it at 50-all. He followed with a 3-pointer that gave the Cougars the lead for good. He came up one point short of tying his career high.

The Gaels got to 65-61 on a basket by Jock Landale before the Cougars went on a 13-1 run. Kwinton Hinson had five points and Flynn added eight to extend Washington State’s lead to 78-62.

Saint Mary’s rallied on back-to-back 3-pointers by Calvin Hermanson that cut its deficit to 10. Evan Fitzner’s layup got the Gaels within six, leaving them to foul in the final minute.

“It’s probably one of our worst games of the year defensively,” Hermanson said. “We just got to be tougher and not let guys beat us.”

Emmett Naar scored 17 points for Saint Mary’s, which will play in the third-place game on Sunday. Fellow Aussie Landale added 14 points and nine rebounds while playing with three fouls. Ford finished with a career-high 15 points and Hermanson had 14.

“It’s simple, we didn’t guard anywhere close to well enough to beat a team like Washington State,” Gaels coach Randy Bennett said. “That’s been our Achilles’ heel thus far.”

STREAK BUSTED

Saint Mary shot 52 percent but its 64-game winning streak when shooting at least 50 percent from the floor ended. On the defensive side, the Gaels allowed Washington State to shoot 59 percent from the floor, just the seventh time since the start of the 2015-16 season that an opponent has topped 50 percent against them.

REPPIN’ THE PAC-12

For the fifth time, a Pac-12 team will play for the title. The league is 4-0 in the event. Washington State will try to join previous conference winners Southern California, California, Washington and UCLA.

BIG PICTURE

Saint Mary’s never led by more than six and had three players in foul trouble as the Gaels’ five-game winning streak ended.

Washington State has been living on the edge, digging itself big holes in the first half of games only to rally in the second half. But the Cougars grew up in less than 24 hours. They led Saint Mary’s by 2 at halftime and played with poise down the stretch.

UP NEXT

Saint Mary’s: Advances to the third-place game Sunday.

Washington State: Moves on to the championship game Sunday.

Villanova’s Battle 4 Atlantis title could end up hurting their NCAA tournament profile

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When Villanova made the decision to play in the 2017 Battle 4 Atlantis, they expected that the event would give them a shot at landing at least two quality wins, if not three.

Instead, the Wildcats will be leaving paradise with a title that came with victories over Western Kentucky, Tennessee and Northern Iowa, after Friday’s 64-50 triumph.

It’s hard to say that winning three games in three days in a resort’s ballroom on a tropical island is a bad thing, but this certainly was not a best-case scenario for Jay Wright’s club. Instead of playing – and, in theory, beating – No. 19 Purdue in the semifinals and No. 3 Arizona in the title games, upsets took those matchups out of play.

Great!

That means that Villanova brings themselves home a trophy and a couple more strands of net.

But that’s not exactly the reason that teams play in these events. The experience of playing a neutral site game after a crazy amount of travel on back-to-back nights certainly does good for the team as a whole, but that’s not quite as important as strengthening non-conference schedules and adding the kind of quality wins that could bump them up a seed line or two.

Think about it like this: The only two quality non-conference opponents that Villanova has left on their schedule are No. 17 Gonzaga, UConn and Temple. Maybe Tennessee will do them a favor and get good enough to be looked at as a quality win, and there’s always a chance that Northern Iowa will end up being one of the nation’s best mid-major programs, but this is still a major blow to Villanova’s non-conference profile.

So when Bracketology season starts and Villanova finds themselves getting mentioned as a No. 2 or No. 3 seed because they don’t have the kind of quality wins that other contenders for the top seed line do, remember this week.

Villanova may be good enough that it does not matter.

But it would be foolish to pretend like those upsets don’t have some kind of effect.