Steve Lavin

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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No. 22 Xavier pulls away to 86-75 win over Georgetown

ST LOUIS, MO - MARCH 20:  Edmond Sumner #4 of the Xavier Musketeers reacts after a play in the first half against the Wisconsin Badgers during the second round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Scottrade Center on March 20, 2016 in St Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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CINCINNATI — Edmond Sumner overcame a painful left shoulder and led a second-half surge that swept No. 22 Xavier to an 86-75 victory over Georgetown on Sunday, ending the Musketeers’ longest losing streak in three years.

Xavier (14-5, 4-3) had dropped three straight — all against ranked Big East teams. The Musketeers allowed a 12-point lead to slip away in the second half on Sunday before their injured point guard frustrated the Hoyas (10-10, 1-6) again. Sumner had a career-high 28 points in an 81-76 win at Georgetown on Dec. 31.

Sumner wore a support on his injured left shoulder and sat on the bench grimacing late in the first half. He had a jumper, a three-point play and a pair of free throws during a 12-3 run that put Xavier in control 70-61. He finished with 14 points.

Trevon Bluiett led Xavier with 24 points. J.P. Macura added 20.

Rodney Pryor scored 23 for Georgetown, which lost for the sixth time in seven games.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Xavier dropped from 15th to 22nd last week after road losses to Villanova and Butler. A home loss to Creighton on Monday put Xavier in danger of dropping out of the Top 25.

BIG PICTURE

GEORGETOWN: Junior guard L.J. Peak scored 21 points and had six rebounds in the loss to Xavier on Dec. 31, keeping the Hoyas in the game with clutch shots down the stretch. The Musketeers clamped down in the rematch — he was only 3 of 12 for 12 points.

XAVIER: Free throws again were an issue early. Missed free throws were a major factor in the Musketeers’ 72-67 loss to Creighton on Monday, when they went only 16 of 29 from the line. They drove to the basket and drew fouls on Sunday but were only 12 of 19 from the line in the first half, which ended with Xavier up 34-33. The Musketeers finished 36 of 49 from the line overall.

UP NEXT

The Hoyas host No. 7 Creighton on Wednesday. They split their series last season, with each winning at home.

The Musketeers play at crosstown rival Cincinnati, which is ranked No. 20. Xavier has won three in a row and seven of the last nine in the annual game.

VIDEO: Watch Marcus Keene score all 50 of his points

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Marcus Keene, the nation’s leading scorer at 29.8 points, went for 50 yesterday, the first time in four years a college player has done that.

WATCH LIVE: Atlantic 10 basketball Sunday on NBCSN

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 13: A detailed view of a Spalding basketball during a quarterfinal game between the Davidson Wildcats and La Salle Explorers in the 2015 Men's Atlantic 10 Basketball Tournament at the Barclays Center on March 13, 2015 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)
(Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)
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The Atlantic 10 invades NBCSN and the NBC Sports app on Sunday.

It begins at 2:00 p.m. with La Salle at VCU. Both of these teams are fighting for first place in the Atlantic 10 standings as the Explorers sit at 5-1 in league play and the Rams are at 4-2.

CLICK HERE to watch the Atlantic 10 on NBCSN

No. 6 Baylor uses late spurt for 62-53 victory at TCU

Baylor forward Johnathan Motley (5) reacts to a play against Texas in first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017, in Waco, Texas. Baylor won 74-64. (Rod Aydelotte/Waco Tribune Herald via AP)
Rod Aydelotte/Waco Tribune Herald via AP
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FORT WORTH, Texas — Sixth-ranked Baylor and TCU kept trading the lead in the second half, with a 9 1/2-minute gap when neither team could muster consecutive scores.

Then the Bears finally closed out their 10th straight Big 12 victory over TCU since their instate rival joined the league four years ago.

Ishmail Wainright swished a go-ahead 3-pointer with 4:16 left, and there was then a TCU miss and more than a minute before Johnathan Motley’s layup for the Bears. Manu Lecomte added a layup to cap the 7-0 spurt that finally put Baylor (18-1, 6-1 Big 12) ahead to stay.

“This was typical of the Big 12. Hard-fought game, both teams playing extremely hard. The day after the game, it’s amazing how drained everybody is,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “I hope fans enjoy it, because we’re worn out.”

There were five ties and 13 lead changes after halftime.

The partisan sellout crowd of 7,276 might not have enjoyed it as much, but the Horned Frogs (14-5, 3-4) have shown great progress in their first season under coach Jamie Dixon, the former TCU point guard.

While the Frogs have already won two more games than all of last season, Dixon feels like they have let their last two game slip away late.

“Obviously got some disappointed guys in that locker room, me included,” Dixon said. “Really thought we were here to win this game. … My feeling we were ready to win them, and we were prepared, and we did things right, did things necessary.”

Lecomte scored 17 points while Motley had 15 points and eight rebounds, along with a punctuating dunk in the final minute. That came soon after Lecomte’s alley-oop pass for a dunk by Jo Lual-Acuil, who finished with 11 points.

Vlad Brodziansky had 19 points and 10 rebounds for TCU, while Kenrich Williams had 16 points and 12 rebounds.

BIG PICTURE

Baylor: This is the first time the Bears have ever been 18-1 overall or 6-1 in the Big 12. They have won their last three games since losing in their first game after reaching No. 1 for the first time in school history.

TCU: Brodziansky and Williams didn’t get much help from the rest of their teammates. TCU shot 29 percent from the field (17 of 58) — Brodziansky and Williams were a combined 12-of-26 shooting; the rest of the team was 5-of-32. “We outrebounded them (38-37), we had lower turnovers (8-10), things we want to do,” Dixon said. “But simply put, the shooting percentages always stand out.”

COMING FROM BEHIND

Baylor is 6-1 this season when trailing at halftime, and has outscored its opponents by more than 10 points in those second halves. “Blessed to have great leadership from the upperclassmen. They don’t panic, they don’t rattle, they stay together,” Drew said. “And they believe in each other.”

TCU led only 24 seconds in the first half, but grabbed a 28-26 halftime lead on Williams’ 3-pointer with 7 seconds left. Baylor opened the second half with four straight layups.

CATCHING AIR

When asked about Wainright’s go-ahead 3, Motley called it a “big shot. I air-balled one, Al (Freeman) too. The fans made sure they let us know. It didn’t matter, we just stayed aggressive, and my teammates trusted me to shoot again.”

UP NEXT

Baylor is home against Texas Tech on Wednesday before consecutive road games, including the SEC-Big 12 Challenge next Saturday at Ole Miss.

TCU plays its next two Big 12 games on the road, starting Monday at Oklahoma State. The Frogs then host Auburn before going to Kansas State.

No. 18 Duke’s insane second half propels them to win

DURHAM, NC - JANUARY 21:  Matt Jones #13 of the Duke Blue Devils reacts after making a three-point basket against the Miami Hurricanes during the game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on January 21, 2017 in Durham, North Carolina. Duke won 70-58.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
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Matt Jones scored all 13 of his points in the second half as No. 18 Duke used a 31-4 run to start the second half, turning a 36-25 deficit into a 56-40 lead as they beat Miami on Saturday night, 70-58.

The Blue Devils were listless defensively and, frankly, bad on the offensive end of the floor throughout the first half, but Jones sparked the second half run with a pair of early threes.

Jayson Tatum added 14 points for the Blue Devils while Marques Bolden played by far his best game as a collegian, finishing with eight points and four boards in 23 minutes, numbers that don’t necessarily reflect his impact.

Miami was led by 19 points from Davon Reed, but looked like a totally different team after halftime.

Here are three things we learned from Duke’s win:

1. The benchings worked: Duke was awful in the first half on Saturday. All of those issues that have popped up this season? They were, once again, at the forefront, and the Blue Devils went into the break down 11 while everyone in my profession tried to figure out what witty lede they were going to use to put an end to Duke’s season.

Saturday also happened to be just the third time in 19 games this season that Duke started their ideal starting lineup – Grayson Allen, Luke Kennard, Harry Giles III, Amile Jefferson and Tatum. But interim head coach Jeff Capel benched three of those starters in the second half, sending Allen, Kennard and Giles to the bench to watch. And it worked. Frank Jackson, Bolden and Jones provided a spark that made the Blue Devils looked like they were Mario Bros and had received star power.

Giles managed just eight minutes on the night. Kennard and Allen combined for 18 points on 5-for-17 shooting.

And it didn’t matter. Duke played their best defensive half of the season – I’d argue it was the best defense they’ve played since the 2015 NCAA tournament – and ended up cruising to a double-digit win.

2. A Matt Jones three may have changed Duke’s season: I’m well aware that the statement that I’m about to make is hyperbolic and as full of #narrative as possible, but I’m going to say it anyway: The first of Jones’ three second half threes – the one that came after he stole an outlet pass, the one that rattled in-and-out before bouncing off the backboard and back in again – may just be the turning point for Duke’s tumultuous season.

Duke has had more issues this season than I care to recount here for the umpteenth time, but one of the biggest issues they’ve faced this season has had to do with the effort level they have played with and the confidence level of the players on the floor. But when that three went in, the Cameron Indoor Stadium crowd went nuts. Even before Miami called a timeout, Capel was nearly to half court, as fired up as anyone on the floor. There was a very distinct, very noticeable change in energy, both in the building and coming off of the bench, and the results can be seen in the way Miami struggled to score.

I know this idea is a reach. I know. I swear I do.

But I just can’t ignore the fact that, after that Jones three, the Duke players looked like they were having fun, like they truly enjoyed playing on this basketball team, for the first time in more than a month.

3. Amile Jefferson returned: Jefferson is the leader of this team on the floor, the captain and the guy that holds their defense together. Part of the reason Duke looked atrocious defending ball-screens against Florida State and Louisville is that they were playing without their best defensive big man.

He was back on the floor on Saturday, recovered from a bone bruise in the same foot he broke last year. This is big because of the fact that Duke hasn’t been the most forthcoming broken when it comes to the injury status of their players.