Sunday, December 11, 2016

St. John's follows up Fordham blowout with head-scratching loss to LIU

Jerome Frink (left) and Nura Zanna (right) combined for 33 points and 23 rebounds against thin St. John's front line, aiding Blackbirds in upset over Red Storm. (Photo by Bob Dea/Blackbirds Hoops Journal)

BROOKLYN -- Darlin', I don't know why I go to extremes.
Too high or too low, there ain't no in-betweens.
And if I stand or I fall, it's all or nothing at all.
Darlin', I don't know why I go to extremes.
- Billy Joel, "I Go To Extremes"

St. John's fans may be channeling their inner piano man on this Sunday afternoon after the latest performance by this writer's alma mater, a 74-73 loss at Barclays Center to LIU Brooklyn, once a winner of three straight Northeast Conference championships before retooling with a new core of players to replace their graduated program legends.

Make no mistake, it was a game St. John's easily could have pulled away in after the Red Storm (5-6) took a 58-51 lead with just over eight minutes remaining in regulation. But before the Johnnies could close out a fourth consecutive win, LIU; who uses the home of the Brooklyn Nets as a second home venue of their own to supplement their posh digs at the Wellness Center, scored nine straight points to steal the lead away momentarily, then matched their Big East foe shot for shot down the stretch.

And while the duo of Jerome Frink and Nura Zanna, both of whom will be chronicled in greater detail later, went to town against St. John's inside, it was Iverson Fleming who made the biggest difference in the final two minutes. Trailing 73-69 after a Federico Mussini three-pointer in the left corner gave Red Storm fans reason to believe they hit a dagger, the senior came back and drained a trifecta of his own to make it a one-point game again.

St. John's was unsuccessful in holding on to the ball on their ensuing trip down the floor, and the Blackbirds (7-3) responded by going back to Fleming for a go-ahead layup that turned out to be the final basket of the afternoon with 20.6 seconds left on the clock. Getting multiple reprieves on two LIU turnovers out of bounds, the second one coming after Nura Zanna intercepted an entry pass in the lane, the Red Storm turned to freshman sensation Shamorie Ponds. Unfortunately for the Brooklyn native and former Jefferson standout, the magic he displayed in a near-triple-double effort Thursday night against Fordham was missing when he attempted to summon it, his game-winning jumper from the left elbow bouncing off the iron and giving LIU a feel-good win not seen since the last of their NEC titles was captured in head coach Jack Perri's first season at the helm in 2013.

LIU gets right back on the floor three days from now, traveling to Minnesota, who; oddly enough, also defeated St. John's last month, in the last game before a four-game homestand takes the Blackbirds into Northeast Conference play. St. John's has a week off for final exams before gracing Madison Square Garden with their presence for the first time this season, tipping off the Holiday Festival against Penn State a week from today. Until then, we leave you with some observations from both camps following a game that turned out to be a solid one in the face of predictions that it would be one-sided:

1) This wasn't the same St. John's team that won three straight in the last nine days.
Instead, the Red Storm looked more like they did in the infamous loss to Delaware State on November 29 at Carnesecca Arena, and Ponds blatantly came out and indicated such.

"I feel like we didn't come out with the same kind of energy we had the past couple of games," he said. "I feel like we came out too nonchalant and flat."

And when prompted to pinpoint a reason for the letdown, he; like many St. John's fans, drew a blank.

"I'm not really sure," Ponds responded. "We've just got to bring it every day."

2) Contrary to rumors, the sky is not falling even after a subpar performance.
At least not in the locker room. While there is consternation adrift on the corner of Union and Utopia, the man responsible for overseeing the rebuilding project did his best to project confidence, saying that "these things happen" when dealing with the growing pains of a maturing team.

"I thought they took it to us from the start," a candid Chris Mullin conceded. "They pretty much controlled the whole game. Even when we got a little seven-point lead, we got sloppy again and didn't take care of the ball, we were not sharp. No one knows better than us that when you do that, you get smacked. We got smacked."

3) Enter Darien Williams.
Seeing his first major minutes in the first game of the post-Yankuba Sima era, Williams accounted for 15 points; 12 of which came in the first half, and seven rebounds in 20 minutes to announce his arrival in the Red Storm rotation in an emphatic and unexpected way.

"I thought Darien was phenomenal," said Mullin, although he took the same time to lament the lack of production from some of his other players. "In the first half, we would have been down 20, (without him) and Richard (Freudenberg) gave us some good minutes. Sometimes we do it well, and sometimes we don't. When we don't, people take it to us."

4) Feed the beast inside.
Gary Moore of The College Hardwood always made it a point to mention this, particularly in the cases of Rokas Gustys and Jameel Warney at Hofstra and Stony Brook, respectively. LIU did that twofold, using Jerome Frink (20 points, 12 rebounds) and Nura Zanna (13 points, 11 rebounds) to wear down a slender St. John's front line with matching double-doubles.

"It was Jerome and Nura, and that's what we are," said Perri. "Our guys know what we are, and we have two horses down there. They are big, strong guys that are skilled. We always say that's a focus of ours every time we start the game: Let's get the ball inside and play inside-out. We're a pretty efficient three-point shooting team when we take the right ones, but going inside is what we do."

5) Iverson Fleming is stepping up to become the senior backcourt leader.
With Joel Hernandez out for the season, having someone to shepherd a young stable of guards that features a rising star in freshman Jashaun Agosto is a luxury that LIU is grateful to possess. Today, Fleming did the honors.

"For the whole year, we've done pretty well," Perri said. "To step up, Iverson has done it. He's got a mindset, he comes and brings it every day with his effort, his energy, his enthusiasm, his intensity. For him to play as well as he's been playing, he's been tremendous."

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