Friday, November 30, 2018

Battle of the Bronx Preview: Manhattan vs. Fordham

Steve Masiello and Manhattan return home for first time since season opener as Jaspers host Fordham in Saturday's Battle of the Bronx. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)

College basketball’s feast week has come to a close on the national landscape, but a longtime local rivalry takes center stage Saturday evening in its latest renewal between two sides in differing positions from a record standpoint, but each in search of a statement win to open the month of December.
For the 111th time, the Battle of the Bronx will once again be contested between Manhattan and Fordham, returning to Riverdale this year as the host Jaspers prepare to avenge an anemic showing on the road against George Washington this past Saturday by opening the doors to Draddy Gymnasium in a 7 p.m. showdown.
At 2-4 on the young season, Manhattan is still finding its way, as many expected the program would following the graduation of a four-pronged senior class last season. Head coach Steve Masiello remains optimistic in the long-term payoff for the Jaspers, however, a firm believer in keeping his team rooted within the moment and living for what awaits in the present. Entering the season, Masiello was encouraged at the potential for this year’s incarnation of Manhattan basketball to be much like his first – a 21-win season highlighted by a 15-game turnaround from the 2010-11 campaign – in that the blend of incoming youth fused with incumbent experience would mesh strongly enough to turn the Jaspers into a Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference contender. The progress through the first six games has been incremental, which Masiello is no doubt content with, but the emergence of redshirt freshman Warren Williams and sophomore Ebube Ebube on the front line has already answered questions about how potent the Jasper interior attack would be without the services of Zane Waterman and Calvin Crawford, as well as Pauly Paulicap, who made his season debut last week after missing the first five games with an ankle sprain. In the backcourt, Bud Mack has taken over the point guard duties with Elijah Buchanan and Tykei Greene opening the game and allowing upperclassmen Tom Capuano and Tyler Reynolds to come off the bench and influence the score with their prolific three-point shooting.

Fordham will be making the short drive up the Major Deegan Expressway at 5-1, taking advantage of a friendly, home-heavy schedule to build a handful of wins in what could ultimately be a make-or-break season for head coach Jeff Neubauer, who enters Saturday’s contest seeking a third win over the Rams’ crosstown rival in his four seasons. Freshman Nick Honor has already made a name for himself in his brief time on Rose Hill, earning Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Week honors and leading Fordham’s offense with an average of 18.5 points per game, a figure amplified by shooting 48 percent from the floor through his first six collegiate contests. Antwon Portley, his backcourt partner, has rediscovered his scoring groove in his first season in the Bronx, and his past experience against Manhattan during his two years at Saint Peter’s will be indispensable to Neubauer and the Rams in what could be considered the stiffest test of the season to date. Jalen Cobb and Ty Perry, each a freshman like Honor, round out Fordham’s quartet of double-figure scorers on a team that plays small and fast, spacing the floor for Ivan Raut to knock down shots on the perimeter and Jesse Bunting – who enjoyed a breakout game at Manhattan’s expense last season – to attack the basket down low.
Jeff Neubauer enters Saturday's Battle of the Bronx looking for third win against Manhattan in four tries. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)
With the background on both teams now in place and the canvas officially colored in, we now prepare you in further detail for the latest installment of the quest for borough bragging rights, refreshing the most recent history between the two sides and offering a proverbial tale of the tape for each school as Manhattan and Fordham wage hardwood war once more:
Date:   Saturday, December 1, 2018
Site: Draddy Gymnasium; Riverdale, NY
Time: 7 p.m.
Video: Jasper Sports Network (Pete McCarthy, Chris Williams)
Radio: WFUV, 90.7 FM and (Raffaele Elia, Billy Reinhardt, Charlie Maisano)
All-Time Series: Manhattan leads, 57-53 (Fordham has won three of last five meetings)
November 26, 2017 at Fordham: Fordham 70, Manhattan 57
The Rams set a school record with 17 steals, 13 of which coming in the first half, as Manhattan was flustered by Fordham’s defensive pressure en route to 25 turnovers. Will Tavares’ 19 points led all scorers on an afternoon where the outcome was hardly ever in doubt thanks to the transition defense and chaos created by the hosts.
“Thirteen steals in the first half, it tells a lot about our guys. We do guard the ball, we work on it. It’s something that’s very important to our program.” – Jeff Neubauer on Fordham’s defensive mindset
“I just thought we were throwing the ball all over the building like we’ve never seen a zone before, and that’s a little strange because we play against zone 80 percent of the day every day.” – Steve Masiello on Manhattan’s struggles against Fordham’s zone defense
December 10, 2016 at Manhattan: Manhattan 60, Fordham 53
A raucous Draddy Gymnasium crowd set the tone for a Saturday night affair much like this year’s edition will be, as the Jasper faithful roared its team on to victory in a performance that defined the style Masiello has instilled since returning to the program as head coach in 2011. Manhattan conceded nine field goals to Fordham in the first eleven minutes of the game, but would only allow eight the rest of the way in holding the Rams to a meager 32 percent shooting display from the floor as Zavier Turner took charge on the offensive end, scoring all 15 of his points in the second half on the way to Doc Johnson Most Valuable Player honors.
“This is a great win for our program. We were on a four-game losing streak, and two of them were just devastating heartbreakers. We needed a win, and anytime you can beat a rival like Fordham, it means a lot. This win is for our president, Dr. (Brennan) O’Donnell, for (athletic director) Marianne Reilly – two Fordham people who are now with us here at Manhattan and lead our ship. We wanted to make sure they had bragging rights at the next Arthur Avenue lunch, so this one’s for them.” – Masiello on the significance of defeating Fordham
“We had a feel for what we had to do, but we were not able to convert against their defense.” – Neubauer on what went wrong for Fordham
November 28, 2015 at Fordham: Fordham 87, Manhattan 64
Injuries and lack of depth reduced Manhattan to just seven scholarship players, which was all Fordham needed to assert its dominance in Neubauer’s debut against the Jaspers as point guard Mandell Thomas exploded for 26 points while Ryan Rhoomes added 20 points and 10 rebounds. The Rams’ 23-point victory was the third-largest margin in program history, and most one-sided triumph since a 36-point thrashing in February of 1986.
“Our team did a lot of tough things here today, and it’s important as we develop this program. In the first half, we turned it over too many times – we had 14 turnovers – and that’s not who we are. In the second half, we played more like who we’ve been and who we’re going to be.” – Neubauer on Fordham fighting through adversity
“We might have had ten guys and Fordham still might have won tonight. I’m not going to take away from any team that’s beaten us, but I can’t worry about that. I’ve got to worry about Manhattan, and what I’ve got to worry about is getting my team healthy as best I can, but unfortunately it’s tough when things aren’t in your control.” – Masiello on mitigating Manhattan’s rash of injuries early in the 2015-16 season
December 22, 2014 at Barclays Center: Manhattan 71, Fordham 57
Manhattan spotted Fordham the first ten points of the game as the Rams ultimately began the proceedings with a 16-4 run before Masiello called on the vaunted full-court press that produced back-to-back MAAC championships to change the tenor of the game. The Jaspers then flipped the game on its head with a 48-17 run that squeezed the air out of Fordham’s collective lungs for a second straight win to help erase a 2-7 start to the year.
“We never got rattled, we didn’t get too up, we didn’t panic. We got our rhythm going and just kind of got back to doing what we do, and I thought they handled it well.” – Masiello on adjusting after Fordham’s 16-4 run to open the game
“Us being able to set up our pressure and dictate what we want, and you not being able to do what you practice, is what our program is based upon. We don’t want your A or your B to beat us. Your C or D has to, and when we do that, we can be successful.” – Masiello on Manhattan’s press defense establishing tempo
November 26, 2013 at Manhattan: Fordham 79, Manhattan 75
Before Manhattan would ultimately reach the NCAA Tournament and take Louisville down to the wire, the Jaspers suffered a minor upset of sorts, falling victim to the hot shooting of Jon Severe, whose introduction to the Battle of the Bronx saw the former Christ the King standout score 22 of his game-high 30 points in the first half of a contest that ended with Branden Frazier’s spin-cycle layup putting Fordham in front for good inside the final minute before Travion Leonard’s breakaway dunk sealed the win for the Rams.
“I told Branden, Jon and Mandell we need 60 a night from you three guys, because that’s the only way we can win with Bryan Smith down. We couldn’t make free throws and they were banging us on the boards. They had 71 field goal attempts, we only had 58, and we still found a way to win the game.” – Tom Pecora on Fordham’s backcourt needing to carry the load against Manhattan’s depth and pace
Guards: Bud Mack (6-1 So., 4.8 PPG, 2.0 RPG, 2.0 APG, 1.7 SPG, 22% FG, 87% FT) vs. Nick Honor (5-10 Fr., 18.5 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.2 SPG, 48% FG, 94% FT, 34% 3-pt FG)
Mack, a RaShawn Stores clone with his eye for defense and hard-nosed pressure, is in the midst of his first season as a starter in the Jasper backcourt, but will have his hands full with Honor, the impressive freshman who has scored 14 or more points in every game this season, including a career-best 28 against Florida International. Already a two-time Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Week, Honor keeps improving with time and age, and is starting to resemble a mid-major version of electrifying Marquette guard Markus Howard.
Advantage: Fordham
Tykei Greene (6-4 Fr., 4.5 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 30% FG, 67% FT) vs. Jalen Cobb (6-0 Fr., 10.2 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 2.7 APG, 1.2 SPG, 41% FG, 77% FT, 35% 3-pt FG)
In this battle of rookie guards, Greene, who has displayed a willingness to shoot through his first six games, matches wits the more well-rounded Cobb, a freshman out of Atlanta who appears to be a prototypical Neubauer player. Cobb comes into Saturday’s game on the heels of back-to-back double-figure scoring games, including a 16-point outing against Columbia that he backed up with four rebounds and four assists.
Advantage: Fordham
Elijah Buchanan (6-5 Fr., 5.0 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 2.0 APG, 1.3 SPG, 34% FG) vs. Antwon Portley (6-4 Jr., 10.3 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 3.0 APG, 38% FG, 67% FT, 35% 3-pt FG)
One of two freshman starters in the backcourt for Manhattan, Buchanan is still learning his way in the Jasper system, and should be much improved by the end of the season. He faces a stern test in Portley, though, who has two years of experience against his opponent from his time at Saint Peter’s, and has been turned loose by Neubauer to become a more complete player than he was in his youth with the Peacocks.
Advantage: Fordham
Forwards: Ebube Ebube (6-7 So., 6.0 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 1.3 APG, 41% FG, 43% 3-pt FG) vs. Ivan Raut (6-7 So., 5.2 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 44% FG, 38% 3-pt FG)
Ebube has blossomed as he has taken on greater responsibility in the Manhattan offense, showcasing his rebounding his potential while simultaneously proving himself capable as a second scorer on the block as well as a pick-and-pop shooter, similar to the role Zane Waterman played the past four seasons. On the other side of the floor, Raut has begun his sophomore year in a bit of a slump, and is still looking to return to the form he enjoyed in the first half of his freshman campaign. The clash in styles between the two-way play of Ebube and perimeter game of Raut will be intriguing to watch.
Advantage: Manhattan
Warren Williams (6-9 Fr., 7.0 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 46% FG, 48% FT) vs. Jesse Bunting (6-8 Sr., 7.3 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 1.1 BPG, 46% FG, 83% FT)
Williams, the former St. Benedict’s Prep star described by Masiello as the real deal, faces a similarly-built matchup in Bunting, who has taken on the Ryan Canty role for the Rams in recent years, even down to the battles with various injuries. Bunting enjoyed a solid game against Manhattan last year, and will look to assert himself early and often, but Williams will make him work for it.
Advantage: Fordham
Masiello has mixed and matched with his rotations this season, and will undoubtedly do the same Saturday by employing Tom Capuano and a returning Pauly Paulicap as first and second substitutes along with junior college transfer Tyler Reynolds. Capuano and Reynolds are a combined 22-for-46 from three-point range, good enough for a total clip of nearly 48 percent, which will provide a direct attack to Fordham’s long-range proficiency. However, no Ram reserve outside of freshman Ty Perry has produced significantly to date, and Neubauer will be banking on solid minutes from the likes of Chuba Ohams and David Pekarek to match what will likely be an eleven-man Manhattan rotation that will keep the Jaspers firmly in the game throughout the night.
Advantage: Manhattan
The gap in this category was once a large chasm, but has since narrowed as Neubauer has eased himself into his Fordham program and used his transition defense and ball valuing principles to defeat Manhattan twice in his first three encounters against the Jaspers. However, the wise man knows never to go against Masiello, whose strategy and tactics remain near the top among his contemporaries in the metropolitan area. Having a full complement of players – many of whom he has been able to mold more than usual with the infusion of youth on this year’s team – will only grow further to his benefit.
Advantage: Manhattan
Manhattan, whose two wins this season have come in defensive lockdowns, the most recent of which being a victory over UNC Asheville in which the Jaspers surrendered just 38 points, will attempt to grind out a 40-minute battle by keeping Fordham in the high fifties or low sixties. Expect Masiello to highlight the emphasis of closing out the three-point line in much the same vein that the Jaspers have done in the past against Iona. As for the Rams, the ability of Neubauer’s guards to attack the basket and find shots against Manhattan’s matchup zone will define the results on the scoreboard. If the Jaspers settle in the early stages and concede threes, Fordham will be able to have its way with the Manhattan defense just as it has in each of the Rams’ past two victories in the series, but if the pressure proves to be too much, the creativity among the backcourt will be what determines the outcome. The Jaspers will not make it easy on Fordham, but the young and explosive backcourt of the Rams will win out over the up-and-coming Manhattan rotation down the stretch for a third victory in four years.

Fordham 72, Manhattan 59

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Pickett, Fisher two of Siena's bright spots in season with mounds of upside

Although not recruited as a point guard, Jalen Pickett's adaptation is one of many reasons why Jamion Christian is encouraged with Siena's start to his first season in charge of Saints. (Photo by the Albany Times Union)

HEMPSTEAD, NY – Shortly after his hire this past May, Jamion Christian stated his first job as head coach at Siena was to maximize the resources he inherited and make the most out of every player on the Saints’ roster.

Seven games into his maiden voyage at the helm, even if the charismatic 36-year-old has only two wins to show for it, have begun to vindicate Christian’s faith in making the most out of what was predicted to be the least – Siena was picked last of eleven teams in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference preseason poll – as he and his players continue to navigate the waters of non-conference play.

“I’m really pleased with our team’s effort and energy,” Christian remarked after Siena’s defeat Wednesday at the hands of Hofstra, a loss that showed the Saints’ mettle – after trailing by 20 points with seven minutes to play, a 16-2 run trimmed the deficit to a more manageable six markers four minutes later – and progress over the past several weeks. “Most teams fold there under six minutes with the score where it was. Our team didn’t do that.”

“We’ve got a great fight within that locker room. We’re getting better every single day, the things we’re adjusting and working on, we’re getting better at. I’m telling you, we’ve got a special group of guys in that locker room.”

Since taking over for Jimmy Patsos six months ago, Christian has overhauled the roster and changed both the culture on and off the court, as well as the product with which the Saints take the floor, bringing his Mayhem brand of basketball – an uptempo system predicated on three-point shots and pressure defense that looks to force turnovers on every possession – with him from Mount St. Mary’s. The results have shown handsomely despite a relatively small sample size, with two prime exhibits being freshman Jalen Pickett and senior Evan Fisher, the latter of whom having since been recast from the perimeter-oriented game he played his first three years in the green and gold.

“I played the four a lot last year, a lot of perimeter game,” Fisher admitted after scoring 25 points against Hofstra as Siena’s de facto center. “I’m primarily in the paint this year, where I’m comfortable, where I played in high school, so I think that’s just suited me well.”

“In games where he keeps his composure, man, what a special player,” Christian added, gushing over Fisher’s poise. “In my conversations with him, that’s what everything’s been about. It’s like, ‘You’ve been this level player all your life, your composure hasn’t been at the level it needs to be at. Now you’re at the level where you’re composure’s excellent.’ And now we’re really getting to see the best part of Evan Fisher, a guy who’s level-headed, but still competitive, still fiery, being able to think clearly, and when he’s able to do that, he’s only going to continue to get better.”

In Pickett, Siena has a legitimate MAAC Rookie of the Year contender, one whose skill set is enhanced by playing out of position in his freshman campaign. Initially recruited as a wing, the 6-foot-4 guard was thrown into the fire at the point guard spot in the wake of Khalil Richard’s season-ending injury in the preseason, and has turned heads on a nightly basis, most recently to the tune of 27 points and 13 assists against a Hofstra team featuring the nation’s third-leading scorer in Justin Wright-Foreman.

“He’s just got a great ability to learn,” said Christian of Pickett. “He’s just one of those guys that, moments after this game, he’s going to text me asking, ‘What do I need to do better?’ He’s always looking to play better, he’s always trying to find ways to improve his game and improve our team. He’s a guy that, when the situation came up with Khalil going down, he was a guy we knew would be able to handle it. When you look at a guy playing point guard for the first time in his life, in a system that really has a lot of different facets to it, he’s just doing a great job of learning the ins and outs of it, being a guy that’s a team-first guy, and he’s having a lot of success because of it.”

“That’s what’s so impressive about him, that he’s not even a point guard,” Fisher said. “But I think what works for us – me and Sammy (Friday) in the pick-and-roll with Jalen – is that he’s such a dangerous player. He can really score off the bounce, so teams have to show a lot of help for him. He just does a great job with the reads, finding us, and just puts us in a great position.”

Pickett’s ability to facilitate for his teammates, and the potential to only burnish that quality, is fast becoming the embodiment of what could be an overachieving year for Siena in a season of retooling for the MAAC as a whole, fitting in with its coach’s vision of a possible year to remember.

“We’re going to have a special season,” Christian said, reaffirming his words from the offseason. “We’ve just got to keep taking these opportunities and learning from them. If we do that, we’re going to be really special.”

Even in victory, Hofstra still fine-tuning its pieces for proper fit

Eli Pemberton's 19 points were best of Hofstra's supporting cast as Pride, led by Justin Wright-Foreman's 28, defeated Siena Wednesday. (Photo by Vincent Simone/NYC Buckets)

HEMPSTEAD, NY -- For most of the evening Wednesday, Hofstra proved just how formidable it can be when firing on all cylinders, its dynamic offense paced by senior guard Justin Wright-Foreman, the nation's third-leading scorer.

In other stretches of the same night, the Pride also showed that it remains susceptible to an upset at any given time, as evidenced by yielding a 16-2 run to turn a comfortable 20-point advantage into a much more tenuous two-possession edge on the scoreboard.

Regardless, Hofstra -- and Wright-Foreman, who led all scorers with 28 points -- survived when it counted, overcoming a furious rally from visiting Siena in the latter stages of the second half to post a 94-86 victory that, ultimately, ran the gamut of the Pride's polar spectrum as a team.

"We had some good stretches," head coach Joe Mihalich assessed as Hofstra (4-3) shot over 54 percent from the floor and made each of its first six three-point attempts against a Siena team running a similar offensive scheme. "I'm more pleased with the pockets of good play, because it was enough to help us win."

To expound on that point, even after Hofstra's 79-59 lead with 7:15 remaining in regulation was pared down to an increasingly tense 81-75 margin four minutes and four seconds later, the Pride relied on key members of its supporting cast throughout the contest. Eli Pemberton, whose 19 points were second behind Wright-Foreman in terms of host team productivity, opened the scoring with seven of Hofstra's first nine points, including a pair of long-distance shots that allowed Wright-Foreman to manage the game without taking charge in its infancy. Desure Buie chipped in with an understated 13 points, and the reserve trio of Dan Dwyer, Jalen Ray, and Tareq Coburn combined for 29 markers, the latter posting a 12-point, 14-rebound double-double to underscore a performance where every Hofstra player to touch the floor scored.

"I know that people can do it," Mihalich said with regard to his team finding different sources of initiative, Coburn being a prime example with his rebounding. "It's nice that it's a different guy every night. One night, it was Jacquil (Taylor), one night Tareq, Justin's been a great rebounder. We're doing okay so far."

"It's not about technique. It's not about put this foot here, put that foot there. It's about wanting the ball, and Tareq wanted the basketball tonight. He was just relentless, he went after the ball hard, and his attitude -- his energy -- really gave us the boost that we needed."

Coming off a hard-fought overtime loss to VCU, one that contained the moral victory of Hofstra taking a highly-regarded Atlantic 10 opponent -- and former conference rival from the Rams' time in the Colonial Athletic Association -- to the limit while also planting the seed for the Pride to build off that experience on the road for vital conference games down the line, Hofstra was aggressive early and often Wednesday, feeding off its offense once it flowed through Wright-Foreman's progression. The defense, a frequent criticism more often than not in Mihalich's five-plus-year tenure on Long Island, was also excellent in some stages, save for the run that brought Siena within earshot in the waning moments of the second half.

"If we're going to be a good team, and that's still an if, then we can't have those stretches we had tonight, where we were poor with the ball or poor defending," Mihalich said.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Figueroa's career night, Heron's slam propel St. John's to 6-0 start in rout over UMES

LJ Figueroa's 25 points and 13 rebounds set tone as St. John's dominated Maryland Eastern Shore to improve to 6-0 on season. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

NEW YORK -- I never knew there'd come a day when I'd be saying to you,
"Don't let this good love slip away now that we know that it's true"
Don't, don't you know the kind of man I am -- no -- said I'd never fall in love again
But it's real, and the feeling comes shining through
- 38 Special, "Caught Up In You"

Don't look now, but St. John's is once again making people fall in love with its basketball program, the flames of romance beginning to glow as bright as they did in the heyday of the then-Redmen.

Okay, maybe it's not 1985-level intense -- and A LOT more would need to happen in order to reach that crescendo -- on the corner of Union and Utopia, but the program's first 6-0 start since the 2009-10 season, the last for one Norm Roberts as head coach, has again given greater rise to the belief that a charmed existence truly is possible in the Red Storm universe.

LJ Figueroa -- whose 25 points and 13 rebounds were career highs at the Division I level -- and Mustapha Heron, who supplemented the junior college newcomer's two-way play with a stout 20-point evening of his own, made sure of that Tuesday evening as the Red Storm handled its business against Maryland Eastern Shore in appropriate fashion, dominating from start to finish in a commanding 85-64 victory at Carnesecca Arena to score the proverbial touchdown in triumphs four days before attempting the de facto extra point in a Saturday soiree against Georgia Tech.

St. John's needed all of seven seconds to put points on the board, doing so on a Heron mid-range jumper, and amassed the first nine before UMES (1-6) cracked the seal on its own ledger. Halfway through the opening stanza, the Red Storm advantage swelled into double digits, where it would remain for the duration of a night where Shamorie Ponds -- the superhuman point guard and hero of each of the past two St. John's efforts, both successful exploits against Cal and VCU, respectively -- saw that his services were not necessarily needed on the scoreboard, therefore asserting his impact on the game in other ways.

"Shamorie, and you guys have watched him, he's a gifted scorer, but he's a great, great passer," Chris Mullin began when asked whether or not he was content with Figueroa pacing his alma mater offensively. "He's one of the very few guys who can influence the game without shooting, just with his pace. I thought he was, really, our best defender tonight, and he's a great passer. Shamorie, he can score anytime he wants, and when the game dictates what's needed, that's what he does."

So as far as the game coming to Figueroa, the junior college transfer initially thought of as not much more than a body with experience who would slide into the rotation as maybe a sixth or seventh piece, yet has taken only six games to develop into the third -- perhaps even second -- option on a potent outfit capable of inflicting serious damage in Big East Conference play?

"I feel like a lot of junior college players are making it, so in a way, it's a lot quicker and stronger," said Figueroa of his transition into the Division I ranks. "But I feel like if you know how to play the game, you can play with anybody, so it wasn't too much of a transition."

Did it take long for him to adjust his game accordingly?

"Let me answer that," Heron playfully commanded after the game. "No. No time at all."

"He's got great instincts," Mullin said of Figueroa. "He really does, especially offensively. He has a nose for the ball, for rebounds, he's got an innate ability to look like he's standing straight up and be athletic, and find space to make his threes, so he's got a really good feel for the offensive game. Offensively, he's just got great instincts. It surprised me a little that he's playing this well, but again -- in the summertime, I saw his offensive instinct, but that doesn't mean it automatically carries over so quickly -- I think as quickly as it has is what surprised me, and he's been very consistent, too."

Leading by 24 at halftime after shooting over 52 percent from the field in the first 20 minutes, St. John's played the final half in cruise control, Heron's dunk over UMES' Tyler Jones with just under nine minutes to play serving as the emphatic dagger before Georgia Tech -- an Atlantic Coast Conference opponent much like Duke was the last time St. John's entered a game with a 7-0 start at stake nine years ago -- beckons on a neutral floor in Miami.

Mustapha Heron's highlight-reel dunk electrified Carnesecca Arena crowd during St. John's demolition of Maryland Eastern Shore. (Photo by Nick Bello/The Torch)

"Coach always tells us to set the tone, so we're going to set the tone no matter who we play," Figueroa affirmed. "It's kind of the same mindset, we're going to go out there and play the game. We know what we need to work on, so it's just setting the tone and knowing what we've gotta do."

"I don't think it's hard," Mullin said of the potential challenge Georgia Tech represents before St. John's returns home to face a slew of low-to-mid-major teams in its final tuneups prior to the December 29 Big East opener at Seton Hall. "It's about focus. That's what it's all about. We've lost enough games the last few years. We've been beaten plenty of times by teams -- home, away, neutral site -- so really, it's just about staying in the moment."

Monday, November 26, 2018

LIU Brooklyn vs. NJIT Photo Gallery

Photos from LIU Brooklyn's 77-70 loss to NJIT on November 24, 2018:

(All photos by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

After loss to Lafayette, FDU's need for defensive rhythm a concern

Despite loss to Lafayette that snapped three-game losing streak, Greg Herenda is still optimistic about FDU's overall prospects, but insists Knights need to improve defensive efforts. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

By Ray Floriani (@rfloriani)

TEANECK, NJ -- A Sunday afternoon home game was approached with eager anticipation, and why not? 

FDU, following a season-opening loss at Rutgers, had won three straight -- the most recent a satisfying victory on the road at Princeton the past Wednesday -- before Lafayette came into Rothman Center with a 1-3 record. 

Yes, there was optimism among FDU faithful, yet head coach Greg Herenda remained concerned. There is no way Herenda may have called this the proverbial trap game with a trip to Providence to take on the Friars only two days away. All coaches are uneasy as gameday approaches, and Herenda knew Lafayette was a legitimate threat. His concern over Lafayette’s offensive weapons became reality after the Leopards downed FDU, 80-76.

“I was happy we held them to 33 the first half,” Herenda admitted. “It seemed like we really didn’t get into a defensive rhythm all game long. I take my hat off to Lafayette. They made plays in the stretch, we didn't.” 

FDU led by as many as twelve points in the first half, ultimately surging ahead at the intermission by a 40-33 margin. One of the major reasons was the Knights finding the mark from three-point range. FDU looks to get out in transition, and if the three is there, the Knights will take it, as evidenced by a 7-for-14 showing from distance.

Two factors came into play the second half as Fran O’Hanlon’s team came back, though: First, the three-point shooting improved as Lafayette made seven of twelve shots from behind the arc after missing all but one of its eleven attempts from deep in the opening stanza. Second -- and most importantly --  Alex Petrie was breaking down FDU’s interior defense. Last season’s Patriot League Freshman of the Year,, Petrie finished with a game-high 26 points, coming off a 21-point outing in his last game, a loss to St. Francis Brooklyn. 

“Petrie hurt us, no doubt,” Herenda said of the 6-foot-3 sophomore guard.

While the Knights had difficulty containing Lafayette’s attack, especially in the second half, a key factor was an inability to turn the Leopards over. 

“We forced Lafayette into only eight turnovers,” Herenda said. “That’s a big factor because we have been turning teams over this year.”

Greg Herenda pleads his case with official during FDU's loss to Lafayette. (Photo by Ray Floriani/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

On the offensive end, Xzavier Malone-Key paced FDU with 19 points while Darnell Edge and Mike Holloway added 17 and 15, respectively. The Knights also crashed the glass, leading Lafayette by a 15-5 margin in offensive rounding. “I thought Elyjah Williams (a game-high 11 rebounds) really gave us a great effort,” Herenda said.

While some may mark this down as a mild upset, Herenda was not surprised about what Lafayette could bring to the table. 

“Their record (now 2-3) is deceiving," Herenda said of his most recent adversary. “They won (over La Salle) on an Atlantic 10 court. Fran O’Hanlon was an excellent player at Villanova, an assistant at Penn and 23 years ago when Lafayette opened up, I applied. Fran got the job and he’s never left. He just does a great job and has one of the best offensive teams we'll face all year.”

Moving on, defense will be a priority for the Knights. 

“Offense was not a problem,” Herenda said. “You make twelve threes for the game at home, you should win the game.” 

Herenda knows it is a long season, and thus there is no need to panic in making the adjustments that are needed. 

“We need to find a defensive rhythm for the whole game,” Herenda said, citing the vital adjustment on the list. “At this point, we as a team just have to stay consistent, get back to practice and move on from here.”

Saturday, November 24, 2018

St. John's vs. Cal Photo Gallery

Photos from St. John's 82-79 win over Cal on November 19, 2018:

(All photos by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

St. John's vs. VCU Photo Gallery

Photos from St. John's 87-86 overtime win over VCU to win the Legends Classic, on November 20, 2018:

(All photos by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Ponds steals show again, scores 35 as St. John's upends VCU in overtime

Shamorie Ponds' go-ahead layup lifted St. John's past VCU to 5-0 start and Legends Classic championship. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

NEW YORK -- I'm so darn glad He let me try it again
'Cause my last time on earth, I lived a whole world of sin
I'm so glad that I know more than I knew then
Gonna keep on tryin', 'til I reach my highest ground
- Stevie Wonder, "Higher Ground"

Shamorie Ponds had flashbacks coming down to the final ten seconds of Tuesday night's Legends Classic championship game against VCU, flashbacks to a similar situation he encountered in high school.

Back then, the St. John's superstar -- before the dream of donning the red and white and playing college basketball in his own backyard became reality -- was merely an up-and-comer at a perennially strong Thomas Jefferson High School program, and experienced the bitter, agonizing heartbreak of losing a PSAL championship game at the buzzer to Cardozo as a sophomore in 2014 on the same Barclays Center floor to which he returned the past two nights. To a lesser extent, Ponds may also have seen visions of a game in his freshman season at St. John's late Tuesday evening, when he missed a potential game-winning shot as the Red Storm suffered a shocking loss to LIU Brooklyn, also inside the same venue.

But as Friedrich Nietzsche so prophetically stated, that which does not kill makes you stronger. And not only was Ponds more mentally and physically equipped to handle adversity this time around, he righted the wrong in the form of a go-ahead layup that held up on the scoreboard as St. John's defeated VCU in overtime, 87-86, surviving after Marcus Evans' three-point attempt for the win fell short amid contested defense by the Brooklyn native, who may or may not have fouled Evans as his backcourt counterpart squared up for the shot.

"Coming down to the last shot, I kind of had replayed it in my head, how we lost in the Barclays," Ponds said of his thought process seconds before amassing the final two of his 35 points, an emphatic encore to a 32-point showing Monday against Cal, as the Red Storm secured its first in-season tournament championship since 2010 and raised its season record to 5-0 in the process. "I just wasn't trying to go out like that."

What Ponds was doing -- superhuman or merely playing really good basketball at the most opportune of times -- was setting a Legends Classic record with 67 points scored in the two-day event, obliterating the previous mark of 52 set by Texas' A.J. Abrams in 2007. And it wasn't only being done on the offensive end, either, as Ponds registered seven assists and seven steals while having to earn every last drop of his payoff against a scrappy VCU defense that lived up to its mantra of havoc.

"It was incredible," LJ Figueroa said of having a ringside seat to Ponds' heroics, contributing 15 points and nine rebounds in his own right. "Shamorie's the best player I've ever played with before. It was incredible just to watch him (for) myself. It just felt unreal."

"He makes those shots," Chris Mullin added. "Shamorie has a gift, and he's got an incredible touch. He's got a gift of scoring and having a feel and instinct for the game that few have. It was an incredible, tough shot, and he made a few in the second half which are probably shots only he can make. He put on a show."

The shots were not falling in the first half, and even early in the second stanza as well, as VCU (4-1) attempted to lure St. John's into its meat-grinder mentality on defense, while simultaneously living behind the three-point line. The Rams missed nine of the first eleven shots that were attempted, yet had shot well over 40 percent from distance for most of the night before the Red Storm was finally able to ramp up the tempo and turn the game into an atmosphere more to its liking against an opponent who had not surrendered more than 61 points in any contest on the young season. It was the lackluster beginning, coupled with a mutual willingness to admit the collective whole has not hit its best stride yet, that prompted a realistic, yet optimistic, look from the parties involved.

"I think we definitely need to go back to the drawing board," said Ponds. "We definitely need to go back to defending and boxing out, getting rebounds."

"This being my first season here, we're still getting to know each other," Figueroa surmised. "We're still learning what we can do on the court, our weaknesses and our strengths. It's just coming together game-by-game. We're gonna get it together."

"We could play better," Mullin echoed. "I think we will get better. What I have liked is we've played through some shaky minutes where we've struggled. I don't see anyone giving up. I think we've had different guys take over on certain nights, and as we get more familiar, you'll see a little more consistent flow to our game."

The we-have-Shamorie-Ponds-and-you-don't mindset that St. John's fans may be jubilantly sharing throughout the metropolitan area -- and deservedly so -- may be on full display, but behind every great player is an equally strong supporting cast. And only 24 hours removed from both players and coach highlighting the multitude of options in the Red Storm arsenal, each of the six primary options in the chamber responded with at least eight points, vindicating the tremendous belief in the ancillary pieces with Figueroa leading the charge in that department.

"He's been a little better than I thought," Mullin said of the 6-foot-6 junior college transfer, who has emerged as a legitimate X-factor at the four position due to his unique knack for spacing the floor and serving as a capable second or third option. "He's got a gift, too. He's got a really good feel for the game. He's good in small spaces, so he's comfortable if the shot clock gets down or he gets out in the open floor. He's scored the ball at an efficient rate and he's rebounding, and when you play small, that's what you have to do. He's been really good."

"It's a tough lineup to prepare for, because you don't really know who's gonna get going. If someone is struggling, we have another guy or two that can pick it up. To our credit, we were in some tough situations the last two nights. Shamorie picked up that technical foul (with 3:44 remaining in regulation) and we could have went down six. We fought back, didn't hang our heads, and that's really where the experience comes in. They truly believed they can win the game. I don't think that was the fact the last two years."

The ultimate test of a leader is that which he leaves behind in all his men, the courage and will to carry on. And so it goes for Ponds, who -- even after consecutive 30-point games to garner what will likely be yet another Big East Player of the Week award -- has instilled a culture among he and his teammates that settling for minor accomplishments is nowhere near acceptable.

"It's a step that we never took," he said of the program's first early-season event crown since the Red Storm captured the Great Alaska Shootout in Steve Lavin's first season at the helm. "Getting off to a 5-0 start, winning a tournament, it's great for us. We just can't stop here, though. We're not satisfied."

Monday, November 19, 2018

Ponds' latest virtuoso performance helps St. John's overcome hot-shooting Cal, improve to 4-0

Shamorie Ponds had reason to be awe-struck after 32-point outing, including game-clinching three in final minutes, to lift St. John's past Cal Monday night. (Photo by Bob Dea/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

NEW YORK -- Hey, don't let it go to waste
I love it, but I hate the taste
Weight keeping me down
Done, done, on to the next one
Done, I'm done and I'm on to the next...
- Foo Fighters, "All My Life"

Trailing by seven points with six-and-a-half minutes to play, against a team picked ahead of only one of its Pac-12 Conference foes, St. John's fans may have inevitably had a reaction similar to that of Dave Grohl, the rock icon whose aforementioned lyrics sixteen years ago provided an appropriate -- undesirable, yet given the never-easy, perpetually-Maalox-inducing tenor of Red Storm basketball, appropriate -- backdrop to the affairs inside Barclays Center Monday evening.

Those in attendance -- and there was a large red-and-white-clad gathering which descended upon the home of the Brooklyn Nets -- appreciated that which they had been treated to: Shamorie Ponds opening the vault for the latest installment of must-see television (and we'll get to that later), a supporting cast which stood tall in offering vital and understated impacts to a team with a cadre of talented depth, and a resilient collective force determined to unite for a shared desire to pull through. But it came at an expense, as it usually does and always will, that of an upset-minded Cal Golden Bears program which torched the nets as if Jason Kidd and Tony Gonzalez -- and maybe even Jaylen Brown, Allen Crabbe and Jabari Bird for the more recent folk -- had walked through the doors at the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush to suit up for the inhabitants of Berkeley.

Cal's 67-60 advantage with 6:39 remaining in regulation yielded the latest here-we-go-again moment in what has been a life cycle of such experiences for St. John's supporters. Yet unlike past years, this group had an answer. It came in the form of an 18-7 run, started and finished by Ponds, who buried two three-pointers -- the first a falling-away look from just off dead center that echoed back to Marcus Paige's heroics at North Carolina, the second a confident, stone-cold dagger from the same vicinity -- during that stretch to swing the pendulum once and for all and present victory to the hometown boys.

St. John's 82, Cal 79, heart attack avoided once more.

"I just found a rhythm, and Coach was just telling me to keep going," Ponds said after the newest chapter of his nightly tour de force tale was written, 32 points on 11-of-15 shooting later, to the tune of the Red Storm moving to 4-0 on the young season and a date with either Temple or VCU Tuesday evening in the championship game of the Legends Classic. "My teammates told me to keep going, so I got hot and I just wanted to stay hot."

"The crowd got us into it late in the game," he added, citing the fan support that has returned after years of apathy permeated the roots of the program, something a little dearer to the Brooklyn native's heart on this particular night. "It just felt good to be home."

The pilot light didn't ignite immediately, though, as Cal (1-2) sought to erase the ignominy of its shocking loss to Yale by making each of its first six shots and nine of its first eleven to start the game, scoring the first six points of the night and landing a straight right to the Red Storm's collective jaw in the form of an 11-4 run over the first four minutes. St. John's battled back, first chipping away at its deficit before seizing control late in the opening stanza with a 12-3 run fueled by the backcourt trio of Ponds, Mustapha Heron and Mikey Dixon, taking a seven-point lead into the intermission and looking for all the world like a runaway winner.

"Defensively, they came out of the gate and they wanted to run," said Ponds. "We just stuck together, and that's how we're gonna get through it. We have to stay together."

"We let them get comfortable, and they made some tough shots," head coach Chris Mullin assessed with regard to the game's opening act. "They were working off the dribble and going deep into the shot clock, so you have to give them credit. As far as our team goes, we got them back on their heels a little bit. I was happy with the way we regrouped and got the win."

"Them shooting at such a high rate and scoring at a high percentage really dictated the tempo of the game. We're the type of team that if we get a few stops in a row, we can get out in the open floor. We weren't able to do that, so we had to play a grind-out game, and we hung in there and just stole it at the end."

Cal had other ideas out of the box in the second half, placing eight of the next ten points into its own ledger to trim the gap to one point and prompt Mullin into a timeout just over two minutes into the final period. The Red Storm responded with six straight points to go back up seven, only for the Golden Bears to uncork a 17-6 spurt that vaulted Cal into a 56-52 advantage that soon reached the 67-60 crest wherein Ponds took matters into his own hands as only he could, putting his team on his back yet again and proving just how different this season may ultimately be.

"I think we're gonna get a lot better," Justin Simon chimed in, supplementing Ponds' appraisal of the Red Storm depth. "I think we're getting better every day, in practice and in games. We're just getting a feel for each other, and we're improving tremendously on both ends."

"We've talked about being in this position before, and we're gonna be in it again," said Mullin. "Shamorie caught fire, of course that sticks out, but even guys who didn't -- I thought Marvin (Clark) came up with some big rebounds, made some free throws -- we talk all the time about how the numbers may change on any given night depending on who's playing well and who's in rhythm, but our daily (approach) has to be the same, especially with the lineup that we have right now. It's gotta be about team defense, team rebounding, and being really unselfish on the offensive end."

Aside from those three characteristics is the experience on the roster, which also served as a deciding factor.

"That experience, I think, showed out," Mullin said. "Our guys had the confidence that they could win it, and they went out and made the plays to do it. We were fortunate enough that Shamorie found his own rhythm, pretty much. He made some tough, tough shots. He made some deep threes -- that runner he made over that big kid (7-foot-3 freshman Connor Vanover) -- those were some tough shots."

Ponds' heroics were not limited to the offensive side of the basketball, either. In fact, it was the ball movement he facilitated -- both Monday and in St. John's preceding contest last Friday at Rutgers -- that had Mullin heaping buckets of praise upon his program cornerstone as the junior superstar burnished his resume even further.

"Shamorie obviously can score the ball, everyone knows that," Mullin expounded. "He's a high-level passer, and I thought tonight he had to score, so he did. He made some high-level passes last game, other guys were going, and he kept us lined up and played as unselfish a game as I've seen him play since he's been with us, and he was very effective. He's the type of player that doesn't have to score to influence the game. When he needs to, everyone knows he can."

"That's his maturity and his experience. That's really what won the game tonight. I think Shamorie's come back with a very open mind, and he wants to win. He wants to make plays that win. If that means scoring the ball, he'll do it. On a given night, if it's just playing pure point guard, he'll do that, and that's really a part of his game that I think has not been seen yet. I think, especially at Rutgers, people were telling me that not only was he making good plays, but the way he stayed in the game when he wasn't scoring was really impressive. There's not many guys who can do both."