The St. John’s Red Storm and the Iona Gaels squared off in the closing game of the Madison Square Garden Holiday Festival doubleheader. The Red Storm downed the Gaels in its first game at the Garden this season, winning 69-59.
St. John’s had five players in double figures—Shamorie Ponds (16 points), Justin Simon (15), Bashir Ahmed (12), Marvin Clark (12), and Tariq Owens (12).
Deyshonee Much paced the Gaels with 15 points, including four baskets from long range.
Three takeaways from the game:
It's Cold Outside
Entering Sunday, St. John's was about average--middle of the pack--from three-point land. The Johnnies shot 35.8 percent from deep, good for 145th in the country. While Marcus LoVett, one of the better long-range shooters, remains out--the Red Storm did have the services of Marvin Clark, who's shooting 58.1 percent from beyond the arc (eighth in the country), Bashir Ahmed, and gifted scorer Shamorie Ponds. Despite this, the Red Storm just couldn't manage to knock down a single three. Even with wide-open looks and fairly good opportunities, they struggled to convert from deep.
“I’ll look at it again, but I thought we were getting good looks,” St. John’s head coach Chris Mullin said. “At halftime, I was like ‘Man, should I change something?” but I don’t think we could get anything better than that. The good thing is, we were stuggling, making no threes, shooting 37 percent, but it didn’t takeaway from our defensive effort.”
For the game, the Red Storm was 0-of-12 from deep. An alarming rate for St. John's, who allowed Iona to hang with it. In the second half, the Red Storm looked to the perimeter less, strived to attack the basket and do the work down low--through designed post ups or drives in isolation.
"We just kept attacking, we played well against a small team," said Bashir Ahmed, who had his second career double-double with 12 points and 11 boards. "They did a great job defensively, but they don't have any shot blockers. So in the second half we just kept attacking the basket."
St. John's was fortunate to have much better luck inside and a tough defensive effort to...
Protect This House
According to KenPom, the Red Storm has been one of the better teams defensively in the country. KenPom ranks them in the top 20 in terms of defensive efficiency, their highest ranking since the 2005-06 season, when St. John's finished 17th. While this year's squad is more well-rounded than that defensive oriented 2005-06 team, the Red Storm flexed its muscles on defense. Even though the shots weren't exactly falling at a desired clip, it was getting the job done defensively. St. John's kept Iona's top scorer and point guard Rickey McGill quiet.
As a team, Iona didn't really shoot all that well. It was just 22-of-63 (34.9 percent) for the game, with most of its shots coming from deep. The Gaels were just 10-for-32 (31.3 percent) from long range.
"They really make you work on offense," Iona head coach Tim Cluess said. "They make you move the ball and I felt we were stagnant."
Aside from that, the Gaels are known for taking great care of the ball, not coughing it up often. On Sunday afternoon, they turned the ball over an uncharacteristic 16 times, cutting off passing lanes and just picking the pockets of Iona ball handlers. Even though St. John's got outrebounded, it didn't get pushed over inside, collecting 10 blocks.
"We're not used to playing guys as big, strong and athletic," Iona's E.J. Crawford said. "They were denying us well."
Big man Tariq Owens accounted for six of those (tying a career-high), and was excellent on help defense--swooping in as the last line of defense to contest or swat the shot.
"When you get shots blocked, it's more for their offense," Cluess said. "It helps them run out in transition and get that run. We told the guys, you're going to get the shots you get off each other ebcause of their length and athleticism, you have to kick it out, we didn't do that enough."
Reunion at the Garden
It was the first game between both teams since 1995. It was also Cluess' first time facing his former school. He played for St. John's from 1979-81, before transferring to Hofstra. Despite this, he still has a soft spot for the Johnnies, and he didn't even pretend to downplay the importance of this game going in.
"I'd lie if I say I wasn't--I was thinking about this game for a while," Cluess said. "Just sharing basketball stories with friends and family and just relationships that were made. I'm glad we had a wonderful opportunity, sad that we didn't win. This means so much to my family."
Cluess shared memories of going to the Garden as a young boy, back when it was filled with smoke (it was legal in the 1960s), cheering for St. John's. He watched the Red Storm grow into a Big East team and still roots for Chris Mullin.
He also shared a few anecdotes of playing in the Madison Square Garden Holiday Festival himself. While it might not have the same glamour and exuberance as it did back then, it's still special for him and his team.
"Obviously my heart is here in Iona," Cluess said. "But if I had a twin, it'd be here with St. John's."