Sunday, December 17, 2017

St. John's length and athleticism too much for Iona in Holiday Festival

Justin Simon was one of five St. John's players in double figures, and was arguably toughest matchup for Iona, who fell to Red Storm Sunday in Holiday Festival at Madison Square Garden. (Photo by Vincent Dusovic/St. John's University Athletics)

NEW YORK -- In one corner stood a team still considered the face of New York college basketball, even in the face of a second rebuild in the current decade and a circuitous path back to the lofty heights it once enjoyed. In the other was the most consistent program of the area, its eight consecutive 20-win seasons and four NCAA Tournament appearances in the past six years setting a standard that has launched a mid-major into a perennial powerhouse in its conference.

The talent level, no disrespect to either side, remains a wide gulf, and such was the case inside Madison Square Garden between venerable St. John's and an Iona outfit that entered its first clash with the Red Storm in 22 years on the heels of a four-game win streak.

Following a rock fight of a first half where the two teams went to the intermission deadlocked at 25, St. John's took control out of the halftime period, opening the floodgates with a 27-7 run and doing just enough to hold off the Gaels by the final of 69-59 in the second half of the annual Holiday Festival doubleheader.

"We didn't play that well in the first half," head coach Chris Mullin assessed as the Red Storm (9-2) placed five players in double digits on the scoreboard despite missing each of their twelve three-point field goal attempts. "I thought we got good looks, but missed a lot of easy shots. At halftime I was thinking, 'What should I change up?' but I'm like, 'Man, I don't know if we can get any better shots than we were getting.' I thought we played with a little more energy in the second half, moved our bodies, moved the ball a little bit better and as crazy as it may sound, we made three or four layups and then created some separation."

Each side made just nine field goals in a rough-and-tumble opening stanza marked by St. John's inability to convert several layups around the rim, while Iona (5-5) settled for three-point shots that bounced off the iron more often than they did not. The inconsistency displayed in the first half soon evaporated, though, as a layup by Shamorie Ponds; who scored 14 of his 16 points in the second half, gave the Red Storm a lead they would not relinquish just 47 seconds removed from the break, and launched a 19-4 spurt that was capped off by a layup from Simon, whose 15 points and seven rebounds were just an underscoring of the havoc wreaked by his 7-foot-2 wingspan, with 14:37 remaining in regulation.

The St. John's advantage would balloon to as much as 20 points with 11:17 on the clock, after a Ponds layup made the score 52-32. The Gaels made one last run, a 19-6 outburst that pulled them within seven with 5:10 to play, but would get no closer after a conventional three-point play by Simon following a Rickey McGill turnover caused a potential five-point swing and put the Red Storm back up double digits, where their cushion stayed for all but four seconds of the remainder of the game.

Aside from Ponds and Simon, Tariq Owens, Marvin Clark II and Bashir Ahmed; the former Iona commit who posted his second career double-double with 12 points and 11 rebounds, each tallied a dozen points. Deyshonee Much's 15 points led an Iona team that outrebounded St. John's by a 46-39 count, but could not solve the riddle of the Red Storm's edge in player pedigree and athletic prowess.

"They played a really good game," Gaels head coach Tim Cluess said of St. John's. "They're a very good team, very athletic, very good at getting deflections and steals and capitalizing on those. They really make you work with their defense. They make you share the ball, and I thought we were very stagnant."

Both teams have a relatively short turnaround before their next contests, with Iona hitting the road to take on Holy Cross Tuesday and then Rhode Island on Thursday, while St. John's heads to Mohegan Sun for a neutral-site contest against Saint Joseph's that will be their final tuneup before welcoming Providence to Carnesecca Arena on December 28 to kick off Big East play. Until then, we offer some thoughts from both sides on the pre-Christmas skirmish between two of the standard-bearers in the New York area:

1) A learning experience for Iona:
The Gaels maximized the shot clock for much of the first half, but not to keep St. John's out of their lethal transition game. Instead, Iona was working to try to keep their defense at bay, which they did through the opening stanza before the start of the second half ultimately decided the outcome.

"I thought the ball was sticking all night long for us," he continued. "When we're good, that's not how we play, but also, we need to get better. Hopefully, this will help us for the rest of this year understand that when we work on certain things, we have to work at a better pace because we have to anticipate those types of teams and players."

2) Golden Griffin.
Iona has high hopes for Roland Griffin this season, and the 6-foot-7 junior college transfer had arguably his best game in the Gaels' maroon and gold this year, going for 11 points and eight rebounds against a much stronger and more physically imposing St. John's front line than he had been accustomed to. Furthermore, it was just his second game back from a sprained ankle suffered against Ohio University nearly three weeks ago.

"He's going to be huge for us as we move forward," Cluess said of Griffin, who has drawn comparisons to former MAAC Player of the Year David Laury in the way he runs the floor. "He's a different type of player for us, and he's a guy who still kind of has to get rid of his stickiness as well. I think he can really play guys defensively really well. You saw him lock down and stay in front of different players tonight, he can get some rebounds, usually can block a shot or two. He gives us a good lift of energy, and he's going to be important."

3) Consistency going into Big East play for St. John's:
The Red Storm welcome Providence, a team that needed a last-second foul call to narrowly get by Stony Brook Sunday afternoon, and one that has already suffered non-conference losses to Rhode Island and UMass as well as to nationally-ranked Minnesota, to Queens to open conference play. But even as the Friars are looking to right the ship heading into the league schedule, so too is St. John's.

"Defensively, we just didn't have that energy and that spark," said Simon, who also rued the missed layups throughout the day. "We know what we have to do, we have to pick it up defensively, and offensively, we just have to make the easy ones and make the easy plays down the stretch."

"We just kept on attacking," Ahmed added. "Coach just told us to keep attacking, get to the line, and in the start of the second half, that's what we did."

4) A little more on St. John's defensive efforts:
Mullin has stressed the defensive side of the basketball, and with good reason. St. John's may be a conundrum in opening halves of games this season, as evidenced by games against Division II Molloy College as well as against Sacred Heart, but the Red Storm still possess the 15th-best adjusted defensive efficiency according to Ken Pomeroy. In raw numbers, that figure ranks 12th-best, and best among the Big East.

"Our defense has been great," Mullin reiterated. "Tonight, I thought we were really, really good. We've just got to keep plugging away. The good thing is us struggling, making no threes and shooting 37 percent, it hasn't taken away from our defensive effort."

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