We’re not in Arkansas anymore.
Mike Anderson coached his first game as the St. John’s head coach in front of a raucous Saturday matinee crowd at Madison Square Garden. His opponent, the West Virginia Mountaineers, entered unbeaten and undefeated.
It was a full-circle moment for Anderson, who had one of the biggest moments of his college career against West Virginia at the Garden. As the starting point guard for the Tulsa Golden Hurricanes, he helped his team beat West Virginia for the 1981 NIT championship.
38 years later, he has now defeated them in his first game back as a head coach. St. John’s fans were in a frenzy, as the Red Storm managed to hold off the Mountaineers for a dramatic 70-68 finish, handing their foes their first loss of the year.
”This game come down to toughness, grit, and determination,” Anderson said. “I think these guys are starting to put on display. When you shoot 32 percent, against a team like West Virginia, you have to find a way, and I think we found a way with defense.”
The Johnnies forced 22 West Virginia turnovers, converting them into 22 points on the other end of the floor.
Although it was a close, back-and-forth contest, St. John’s led for a majority of the game. The Red Storm was able to push its lead into double digits, temporarily, until a late run by West Virginia trimmed away at St. John’s once comfortable lead.
West Virginia meticulously pieced together a 9-0 run, as the Red Storm struggled to put an end to a scoring drought. A three-pointer by Sean McNeil eventually tied things up at 68, with 1:13 to play.
Neither team was able to gain the lead, until Rasheem Dunn was fouled in an attempt to drive towards the basket. With five seconds remaining in the game, he drained both go-ahead free throws to win the game.
Much like his head coach, it was also a full-circle journey to return to the Garden.
Dunn won a PSAL high school title with former teammate Shamorie Ponds at Thomas Jefferson, winning the championship game at Madison Square Garden in lopsided fashion. After high school, he went to LIU Brooklyn, before transferring over to Cleveland State, and then St. John’s.
”I felt like I could play on the big stage, I thank Mike Anderson to grant me that scholarship and take me in as family,” Dunn said. “Everyday in practice, we work hard in playing hard, playing together. With those two free throws, we shoot 500 free throws every week of practice, and it paid off.”
”I just wanted to get the win, I just did everything in my power to get that win,” Dunn added. “I stepped up, knocked down those free throws, but through the whole game we stayed together. We worked hard, no one was in their feelings, and we got that W.”
L.J. Figueroa had a game-high 17 points and four rebounds. Dunn finished with 13 points, five rebounds, and four assists. Nick Rutherford chipped in 11 points.
For West Virginia, McNeil paced the Mountaineers with 13 points and a 4-of-7 shooting performance from long range. Derek Culver had a 12-point, 18-rebound double-double.
Three takeaways from the game:
Pressing Press Virginia
While Shamorie Ponds was a one-man machine, particularly when it came to creating turnovers and attacking in transition last season, the Red Storm have continued to generate turnovers at a high clip even without him. Instead of one person generating a bulk of opponent turnovers, St. John’s has been doing it as a team-wide unit.
The Red Storm was problematic in its half court defense, aggressively jumping West Virginia passing lanes and committing to their assignments. Despite a cold-shooting first half, St. John’s was able to stay in it with its defense and ability to frustrate the Mountaineers. 13 of West Virginia’s 22 turnovers came in the first half. St. John’s converted the takeaways to 22 points on the other end of the court.
”I always think our defense is the best in the half court, and we were able to get some stops with some matchups,” Anderson said.
St. John’s entered Saturday’s contest forcing turnovers on 23.2 percent of opponent possessions, the 42nd best in the country, according to KenPom. The Red Storm’s effort on that area of defense surpassed that of their opponents.
In the second half, the Red Storm raised the intensity.
The Red Storm’s emphasis on defense was crucial, especially when they shot just 23-of-70 (32.9 percent) for the entire game and an even worse 2-for-17 (11.8 percent) from beyond the arc.
”It’s an amazing win,” Figueroa said. “For some guys it’s their first win here at the Mecca. It’s just been great to see, that we didn’t shoot the ball well--2-for-17 from three--but like coach said we put our hats on and worked hard on defense.”
There’s no doubt that Figueroa has shown an ability to heat up and carry his team to victory. He proved to be quite the impact transfer last season, and he’s continued that strong play into this season. He started the first three games of the year hot, scoring at least 17 points in each of the Red Storm’s first three contests.
Recently, it looked like he slowed down a bit. In the victories against UMass (Nov. 24) and Wagner (Nov. 30), he had just 13 points on 5-of-18 shooting across both games. He was back on track in the Red Storm’s previous game against St. Peters, where he had 19 points, but he had his best start of the season against West Virginia.
St. John’s struggled to get any semblance of an offense going against West Virginia. While its defensive effort and ability to generate turnovers kept the Johnnies right there with the Mountaineers, they also received a huge boost from Figueroa, who didn’t seem to have any issues going against ‘Press Virginia.’ He had all of his 17 points in the first half, and was the only player from either team to be in double figures at halftime. Apart from him, the Red Storm shot just 7-for-32 in the first half.
Unfortunately for Figueroa, he was hampered by foul trouble in the second half, and didn’t really get the opportunities to add to his scoring total, but this performance could be the start of another hot streak for Figueroa.
This season, St. John’s hasn’t been a great free throw shooting team, entering the game shooting a subpar 65 percent at the line. It turned out that the Red Storm would need every single one of their points from the charity stripe, as they shot a solid 22-of-27 (81.5 percent) as a team. In the second half, they went 15-for-17 (88.2 percent) from the line.
”It came down to free throws,” Anderson said. “We made ours, and they missed theirs. We hadn’t been shooting well, but we came through today. What a way to start your season at Madison Square Garden, the crowd was wild. We were up, they came back, and it came down to free throws....to our guys’ credit, they didn’t go away.”
With the way West Virginia was able to make a run at the end to make it close, it would have been a different story had St. John’s shot closer to its performance so far in the season. Could this be the start of an improved showing?