Marquette falls flat for second straight game in loss to St. John’s

Photo by Brian Georgeson

NEW YORK – Sloppy. Undisciplined. Demoralizing. Lacking.

There are a lot of different adjectives that could be used to describe the effort that Marquette (14-8, 5-5 BIG EAST) put forth in its 86-72 loss to the St. John’s Red Storm (11-13, 5-6 BIG EAST) Wednesday night in Madison Square Garden. Marquette head coach Steve Wojciechowski chose to use a different phrase to describe his team: “Not competing.”

“I am a little bit at a loss at this point,” Wojciechowski admitted. “The team that I am (sic) coaching the last couple of days is different than the team I coached six days prior. … We have to get back to being that team.”

If Wojciechowski was truly at a loss as to how to get his team back on track following a loss to Providence on Saturday, he was far from the only one. Poor defense and turnovers conspired to keep Marquette out of a game that otherwise might have been close. The latter was especially crippling as Marquette gave the ball away 17 times, a season high.

The two main culprits in that area were freshman guard Markus Howard and sophomore guard Haanif Cheatham. Howard turned the ball over a career-high six times and Cheatham turned the ball over five times.

Those turnovers had a severe dampening effect on Marquette’s intensity whenever they happened, but the most salient examples came right at the end of the first half. Marquette led for a substantial portion of the opening 20 minutes and was only down 41-37 with just over 60 seconds to go. Coming out of a timeout, Cheatham was stripped at the top of the key by St. John’s freshman Shamorie Ponds, who dropped in a layup. Markus Howard coughed up the ball in nearly the same spot on the next possession, leading to a fast-break dunk by Ponds. Just like that, St. John’s stretched its advantage out to eight.

After the game, Howard called the Red Storm’s pressure “a little overwhelming.”

“Teams are starting to key on me, so I have to adjust every time we play,” Howard said.

Junior guard Andrew Rowsey, who scored a team-high 21 points, had a different opinion.

“I think they were trying to play with the ball too much instead of just going by them,” Rowsey said of his teammates. “(St. John’s) was trying to cut us off and keep us in the corners and we just got to keep the ball centered and try to just get past them.”

Although St. John’s’ 18 points off of turnovers were certainly significant, the Red Storm created plenty of problems for the Golden Eagles even without them. St. John’s shot 58.1 percent from the field in the first half, connecting on its final seven field goals before the buzzer. Marquette briefly kept pace with the Red Storm by starting the half 8-for-13, only to fall into a 4-for-21 slump from the 10:52 mark until the intermission.

Four St. John’s players ended the game with double-digit point totals, and none of them punished Marquette quite like junior forward Bashir Ahmed, who ended the day with 23 points. That mark was both a team-high for the night and a career-high for Ahmed.

Marquette freshman Sam Hauser often defended Ahmed and found it a harrowing task.

“He’s got a really good first step,” Hauser said. “He can shoot it, so you have to respect that and guard the drive. He’s a really good player.”

Ahmed proved that with his team up by six with 14 and a half minutes left in the second half. After receiving a pass off of an offensive rebound, Ahmed drove to the hoop, absorbed the contact from Hauser and dropped the ball in the basket to complete a three-point play. On the next possession, Ahmed drained a three from the right wing with a hand in his face to give the Red Storm a 12-point lead.

A satisfied Ahmed was quick to credit his teammates – big men Kassoum Yakwe and Tariq Owens – for his success.

“They definitely open the floor up for me and the other guards,” Ahmed said. “Every time (Marquette) clogged up on (Yakwe), he kicked it out.”

In the face of everything that went wrong for Marquette – turnovers, poor defense, Bashir Ahmed’s big night – it’s tempting to assume that there was no way the Golden Eagles could close the gap. They did, though, go on a 10-0 run later in the half to cut a 17-point St. John’s lead to just seven with 8:45 to go.

A switch from man-to-man defense to a 2-3 zone largely catalyzed that run. St. John’s missed its first six shots after Marquette implemented the zone, a fact that Wojo at least partially attributes to the Golden Eagles being able to set up a defense in the face of an uptempo St. John’s attack.

“We weren’t turning it over as much so we were actually able to get into a halfcourt defense. It kept them out of the lane more, so again you force them to shoot over top of you and it worked for a little while,” Wojciechowski said.

St. John’s, on the other hand, attributed the decrease in effectiveness to not having seen much of Marquette’s zone before.

“It took us an adjustment, but I think we adjusted to it real (sic) quick,” St. John’s guard Marcus LoVett said. “We knew we had the lead and we wanted to keep our lead.”

The Red Storm’s Federico Mussini knocked down a 3-pointer after some Cheatham free throws cut the lead to seven, which would be as close as Marquette came for the rest of the evening.

“It is one thing to have a game plan and coming into the game on what you want to do, but none of that stuff matters if you are not competing,” Wojciechowski said. “We were dead in the water there.”

While Wojciechowski was referring to his team’s effort on that particular evening, “dead in the water” may soon be applicable to Marquette’s tournament hopes if they don’t change course immediately.