Red Storm Rising
For two hours the cheers rolled down to the court like thunder as #4 Pittsburgh and St. John's traded buckets and defensive stops. The house exploded when the Johnnies retook the lead 58-56 on Dwight Hardy's second free throw, but the Pittsburgh fans responded in kind when Travon Woodall knocked down Pittsburgh's only three pointer of the afternoon that did not come from the hand of Ashton Gibbs. The Red Storm brought the ball up and called timeout. 0:11 left and a one point game, Dwight Hardy drove to the lane passing Gilbert Brown, he had to move left and down to the baseline. Brown shadowed him, staying between the guard and the basket, but Hardy piroetted (Coach Lavin's words...) past the Panther forward and Brown let him go, believing the vaunted Pitt lane defense behind him would rotate over to cover the guard. No help came, but Hardy had driven too far, and positioned under the basket, had lost his clear shot. Laying his arm out he flipped the ball up with an underhand motion. The ball bounced tentatively on the edge of he rim before dropping through. The Garden exploded, sending a wall of sound down to the court. 60-59 St. John's. "...a tough shot...give (him) credit for making the shot" said Jamie Dixon after the game.
Like many Saturday noon games, the crowd was slow to assemble, and if the cheers during the line up announcement was louder than usual, the cheer that greeted Hardy's first (and only) three pointer, the response to a Gary McGhee put back of Travon Woodall's runner that had put Pitt up 2-0 from the tip, was several decibels above the line up announcement, and a precusor of the support to come. Pittsburgh's pregame notes described Madison Square Garden as the Panthers "home away from home", and touted Pitts 26-11 record in the building since 2001, but the cheer that filled the arena after Hardy's long jumper left no doubt the players in home whites were indeed the home team. With Hardy's bucket the Johnnies opened a 14-5 run that stunned Division 1's #4 team and left them reeling through much of the first half. Physical, deliberate defense-oriented play characterized the first half, with Pittsburgh trailing by margins as high as nine. Facing a hostile and active road crowd seemed to unnerve the Panther squad and their head coach, Jamie Dixon, who drew a technical with 5:05 left in the first half. And the referee crew too seemed affected as they closed the half with a series of bizarre calls that put two technicals on St. John's (one on Coach Steve Lavin and another on guard DJ Kennedy), and gave the Panthers four straight free throw attempts, the ball and a one point lead with 0:25 on the clock. The 27-26 score held through the end of the half.
The breakdown by halves...
The pace was Pittsburgh's all the way. Neither team managed more than six points on fast break opportunities. Ashton Gibbs' third foul -- he grabbed DJ Kennedy after the St. John's guard picked Travon Woodall's pocket and was closing in as a one man fast break -- was the favored tactic to prevent the easy, close in buckets. Gibbs, whose return to the Pittsburgh rotation was overshadowed by the loss, scored a game 26 points 8-14 (6-9, 2-4) and 4-4 shooting for a remarkable 67.9% eFG% and 1.64 PPWS.
Both teams did a great job holding the other to <1.00 point per possession through the first half (divide the ratings in table above by 100). Though the pace did not change (it became even more deliberate), both teams scored afar more easily. For Pittsburgh, points came through field goal conversion as suggested by their 60.9% eFG% (12-23 from the field). St. John's by contrast had a field goal conversion rate reminiscent of last season, but compensated with reduced turnovers (turnover rate was 10.2%) and trips to the line (their FTA rate was 109.5%), which outnumbered their field goal attempts.
Notes and Observations
1. Johnnies' guard, and Pittsburgh native DJ Kennedy, a graduate of the famed Schenley High School, picked up three fouls in the first half -- the third a technical after the guard made a face in response to his second foul call -- and played only eight minutes in the second half. Kennedy, who scored 11 points picked up his fourth foul less than two minutes into the second half, and sat for much of the second frame, taking one of St. John's most consistent scoring threats off the floor.
2. Rehabbed Ashton Gibbs was the only Pittsburgh player to score more than 10 points. Gary McGhee, saddled with his fourth foul at the 10 minute mark of the second half and forced to sit for nearly seven minutes, scored seven points. Nasir Robinson and Travon Wooodall, both also carrying four fouls, scored six points.
3. St. John's remarkably matched Pitt on the boards, snagging 31 loose balls. Dixon used a rotation of Talib Zanna, Lamar Patterson and Dante Taylor with Robinson and McGhee. Dixon's problem was rebounding versus scoring. With McGhee and Robinson he had scorers, but the tandem seemed less effective on the boards than Taylor with McGhee. Taylor grabbed five boards in 19 minutes of play to Robinson's two boards in 29 minutes.
4. St. John's was paced by Dwight Hardy who scored 19 points in 32 minutes of play. Other double digit Johnnies included the foul plagued Kennedy (11 points) and Justin Burrell, whose size and length posed a match-up problem for Pitt. Burrell, who logged 34 minutes of play off the bench hit 15 points and pulled down eight rebounds.
"Yes! Every time we credential you, we win!" was St. John's SID's response to Rush the Court's request for courtside access to run a live blog when Pittsburgh visited St. John's at Madison Square Garden.
Because This is a Villanova Blog...
The St. John's staff wore suits, no ties, and white running shoes to the game. This has become the preferred attire since the Coaches vs. Cancer "shoeless" game last month. Coach Lavin was asked if he was assuming a Louie Carnesecca-like superstition given the Johnnies' recent run of good games. "No" he replied and talked about realizing how much more relaxed he was without the tie. When asked if he was really willing to concede the "Best Dressed Big East Coach" battle to Villanova's Jay Wright, Lavin chuckled "Jay Wright is George Clooney" he replied, confessing "I am attracted to Jay Wright. And my wife knows I am attracted to Jay Wright..." The laughter that rolled through the room was easy and genuine. The winning team's press conference is always more fun.
Earlier in the presser Justin Burrell was asked about tension in the St. John's huddle at the under five minute timeout with the Johnnies down two. What plays were discussed the forward was asked. "None" he replied. "The coach told us to enjoy ourselves". The response begged for a followup, and to Lavin, who entered the room and took the podium after Burrell and Hardy departed, this was the first topic touched. "A matter of miscommunication..." replied Lavin "They were obviously down as the guys on the court walked over to the huddle...I decided to try to lift their spirits rather than go over specific plays..." His next lines brought back memories of Coach Massimino's now famous "pasta" half time speech during the Wildcats' Regional Final versus North Carolina. "...I told them to enjoy the moment. Here they were, playing the game they love, with their best friends, in front of their fans in Madison Square Garden. It does not get better than this...go out and enjoy playing the game..."
Pittsburgh takes their third loss of the season and second in conference play, putting their record at 24-3 and 12-2 respectively. The Panthers' road trip continues with a stop in Morgantown, WV to face the 'Eers on Thursday. St. John's record now stands at 17-9 overall and 9-5 in conference play.