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February 20, 2009

St. John's Battles Back; Comes Up Short

St. John's and Atlantic Coast Conference rival No. 9 Duke battled Thursday night at Madison Square Garden, with the Blue Devils (21-5, 7-4 ACC), ultimately, defeating the Johnnies (12-14, 3-10 BIG EAST) 76-69.

With the loss, St. John's dropped its fifth consecutive game, while Duke snapped a two-game losing streak.

St. John's came back strong against the Blue Devils in the second half after trailing by 11 at the break. The team outscored Duke in the second stanza 43-39.

Despite a star-effort by Duke's sophomore forward Kyle Singler with 4-of-5 from the perimeter, St. John's mainly used the middle as its ticket to keep the game close. Not only were the Blue Devils' post players not sizably larger than that of the Johnnies, but oftentimes St. John's found holes in the defense and found itself closer to the basket because of the exploitation of open driving lanes. St. John's out-rocked the paint 44-28.

Unfortunately for the Johnnies, the late effort was not enough to stage a comeback. Here's what went wrong for St. John's against Duke.

Giving Duke the Gift of Charity

Although St. John's did most of what it should have done to pull out a victory, the team's over-aggressiveness allowed Duke to win this one at the foul line. The Johnnies had a difficult time matching intensities without getting sloppy on defense. And, made some mistakes in guarding their opponent that sent a Blue Devils player to the foul line.

St. John's gave Duke 33 opportunities at the charity stripe, but only gained 16 of its own. The Blue Devils' junior guard Gerald Henderson had a team-high 19 points, including a 11-of-13 effort from the stripe. Teammate junior guard Jon Scheyer, the team's second leading scorer, was 10-of-14 from the line and finished with 18 points.

The Blue Devils caused problems for St. John's with drawing fouls by limiting the Johnnies top players' physicality in fear that too much contact will cause a subsequent referee's whistle. But, St. John's couldn't return the favor. Duke's tertiary scorer Singler (15 points), fouled out very late in the game after the damage was already done, while St. John's sophomore guard Paris Horne picked-up his fifth with 8:32 remaining in the second half. The Johnnies' main offensive threat was held to only seven points in 20 minutes because of foul trouble.

Starting Freshman Elliot Williams

"[Elliot Williams] added a verve in our practice sessions and we needed it," said Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski. "He hadn't played in the last couple of games and he looked like he played a long time for us."


A start for 6-foot-4 freshman guard Williams not only added vitality to the Blue Devils, but also gave more length to the Duke squad in the match-up with St. John's sophomore point guard Malik Boothe. Boothe's 5-foot-9 body knows how to compensate for the size difference between himself and someone of a 6-foot-1 stature, such as regular starting senior point guard Greg Paulus. However, Coach Krzyzewski opted to go with Williams instead of senior veteran Paulus.

This decision aided Duke in an 11-point lead at the break, as St. John's had to shuffle the rotation deck, at times, and slip longer freshman two-guard Quincy Roberts to defend the one. Williams made nine of his 11 total points in the first half.


Turnovers

"We had too many of those careless turnovers," said St. John's head coach Norm Roberts. "I don't think it was really totally due to their pressure- it was more careless."

Sometimes the Johnnies were running plays too fast and lost control of the ball in the process. St. John's committed 18 turnovers, which were converted into 16 Duke points. The Blue Devils continue to be great finishers and when presented with multiple opportunities, they make something happen on offense with finely structured execution. Fourteen of the 18 errors were in the first-half alone.

St. John's players did not seem to foresee what they wanted to do with the ball and where they wanted it to go before running and executing a play. When the Johnnies move the ball around with a purpose and watch timings with themselves and each other, they are more successful with maintaining possessions.

On a Positive Note...

Without Paris Horne, sophomores forward Sean Evans and swingman D.J. Kennedy took the offensive task on their shoulders and kept attacking the glass to create scoring opportunities. Evans finished with a solid game, netting 15 points and grabbing five boards. Kennedy had a game-high 20 points and nine rebounds. Boothe added 10 points and four assists.

Duke made 21 of its points at the arc, while St. John's made two of only three attempts at the perimeter during the entire stretch of the game. However, the Johnnies were still able to pull the game close enough to make even some Duke fans in the audience feel uncomfortable. St. John's saw a deficit of as much as 16 points at the 12:57 mark of the second stanza slowly chip away to a two-possession game, 74-69, with 15 seconds remaining in regulation.

"[St. John's] has a really good concept and they play hard and they play pretty good defense," said Coach Krzyzewski. "I have a lot of respect for them."

In spite of receiving its fifth loss on the schedule this month, St. John's can take a lot of positives out of this contest and apply it to the last five conference games on the schedule. With only two days between Duke and Seton Hall, the Johnnies will have to quickly build from this game and start afresh on Sunday against the Pirates.

"Everybody focused in and played with a lot of energy," Kennedy said of his team's performance against Duke. "We got a lot of help contributed from everyone- so I think we can take that to the next game."




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