St. John's needs to get some new uniforms. Nobody's trying to act like UC's tri-colored Adidas triangle theme is super cool, but the Red Storm dudes look like they’re wearing the high school JV jerseys handed down by the 1988 state championship team.
The Johnnies got handled like a JV team for most of Wednesday night’s game, a 71-61 UC win that wasn’t as close as a 10-point difference would suggest.
UC scored the game's first six points, forcing St. John’s coach Norm Roberts to call a timeout less than two minutes in. UC had a 17 point lead at halftime and led by 20 early in the second. The ‘Cats got sloppy late in the game, allowing St. John’s to pull within seven with 3:30 to go, but their defense held up and the game was never really in jeopardy.
The Bearcats shot 63 percent for the game and made 6-of-10 3-pointers. Their defense continued its yearlong improvement, holding St. John’s to 32 percent and their second-leading scorer, D.J. Kennedy, to five points on 1-of-12 shooting. Sophomore guard Paris Horne scored 20 on 9-of-21 shooting, much of which came during the comeback attempt.
Mike Williams and Yancy Gates had their way inside against St. John’s’ front line, going a combined 13-of-16 from the floor. Williams hit some shots early, finished with 12 and was the game’s leading rebounder with nine. But it was Gates who made eight of his first nine shots and continually scored over St. John’s defenders. Gates finished with 21 and was 5-for-5 from the free throw line.
“We did a good job of getting him the basketball in a position where he can use his body,” Cronin said. “When he gets the ball he has the talent to get 20 points. He’s got that kind of athletic ability.”
Even having trailed by 21 at one point, things could
have been even worse for St. John’s. After the Bearcats jumped out to a 16-8
lead they missed five straight free throws, only to bail themselves out with
tough defense and numerous buckets from Gates down low. Deonta Vaughn hit
3-of-5 3-pointers in the first half, which helped build the lead and let the
team set up its defense. Vaughn finished with a quiet 14 points and was able to spend a little extra time on the bench for once thanks to the big lead.
Cronin credited the more efficient offense to better passing by his wing players – specifically Dion Dixon, Rashad Bishop and Alvin Mitchell – who combined for 10 assists.
“We really work hard at those guys creating off the bounce,” Cronin said. “I would rather have teams struggle to guard our players than our plays because you can take away what teams are trying to do as you get comfortable with it, but I thought those guys did a great job of passing the ball to each other. And our shooting percentage was a result of the quality shots we were getting because of our passing.”
St. John’s pressured the ball more in the second half, frequently taking the Bearcats out of their initial offense. UC turned the ball over nine times in the second half and 14 times overall, leading to 17 points for the Red Storm.
But even with the extra attempts St. John’s couldn’t consistently score down low over the trio of Williams, Gates and Steve Toyloy. Many point-blank shots were tossed up wildly because of UC’s help defense and St. John’s’ 19 offensive rebounds didn’t lead to much because UC’s big guys were still defending the second chances.
As good at UC’s interior defenders performed, it was the perimeter defense that kept the game from becoming the shooting contest they got into during the Bearcats’ come-from-behind 71-60 win Jan. 22. It took five minutes for St. John’s to hit their first shot, a 3-pointer by Kennedy that resulted in Alvin Mitchell taking a seat on the bench for losing him. Rashad Bishop guarded Kennedy for most of the game, and that first 3 ended up being his only make of the game.
The Bearcats improved to 17-8 overall but more importantly earned their seventh Big East win, keeping pace with the top half of the league with a tough stretch of games coming up. After losing their first three conference games UC has gone 7-2 to draw even with Providence for sixth place, a half game ahead of No. 22 Syracuse.
“What’s happened is our guys have learned what it takes to win – that’s the biggest part of it,” Cronin said. “But it takes kids who want to win. It’s not just coaching and practice. We got kids in there who have a lot of pride who want to win, and it makes it easy to coach. That’s why I was confident even when we struggled early in the conference season because I’m in there every day with them in practice and you know what kind of character you have.”
With a road trip to No. 4 Pitt looming after the St. John’s game it would have been understandable for a young team to slip up against the Red Storm, which entered the contest at 3-8 in the league and with little postseason hope. Williams’ postgame comments suggested that the white team knew that if they lost to St. John’s then playing Pitt would mean a lot less.
“All week he was telling us that this was a game we gotta win because we got Pitt Saturday and to drop this game then go into Pitt that wouldn’t be good,” Williams said. “So we needed this to have some momentum and to be even more pumped up to play Pitt.”
UC's remaining schedule gives it two shots against Top-10 teams in Pitt and No. 7 Louisville before contests with fellow Big East middle-ground teams Syracuse and West Virginia before concluding with Seton Hall and South Florida, both of whom UC should be favored against.