The tale of the tape says Oklahoma outrebounded St. John’s 37-31. The Sooners outshot the Red Storm 47.9% to 41.5%. OU out free throwed (go with it) STJ, getting five more attempts from the line. You what else the Sooners did? Outturnovered the Johnnies 19-8.
“But that’s what we do!” say the St. John’s faithful.
“That’s just the way St. John’s plays defense,” Tuesday high scorer for the Johnnies, Eugeneia McPherson, said. “We didn’t see that in the Creighton game. I think that followed over to the second game. The refs let us play a little bit but just forcing them into turnovers definitely helped us.”
“But we were careless with the ball!” say the naysayers. After the game was finished OU’s Whitney Hand called the mishaps “dumb stuff” that has been the Sooners’ weakness all year. Coach Sherri Coale pointed to the unforced and unexplainable nature to some of the turnovers that OU committed.
“The way we had to defend them was to try to protect the paint, so we weren’t going to be able to create many (turnovers) with our defense against all that athleticism,” Coale said of the turnover margin. “What we had to do on the other end was value the basketball and we had some very careless turnovers. And even in light of that, we would come back and tie it, go up by two. Just about every time we took a lead, they had a quick and immediate strong answer for it and after a while we just didn’t have enough to keep coming back with that.”
“No really, this is how we win!” St. John’s emphatically explained. “Even if you don’t realize it, this is us.” And that’s exactly what they did to advance the the Sweet Sixteen and a trip to Fresno, Calif.
“That’s been the strength of our team all year is to be able to create a lot more turnovers and score some points off of turnovers than we have,” St. John’s coach Kim Barnes Arico said. I just noticed that we had 21 points off of their turnovers and obviously that was the difference in the game. I thought that we did a tremendous job.”
Yes, you saw that right. St. John’s picked up 21 points off of 19 turnovers, and that proved to be more than enough to take down the Sooners on their home court. OU’s second possession of the game ended with a Morgan Hook turnover to set the tone in the game. In fact, the Sooners had four turnovers in the first four minutes of the contest.
“They weren’t happening because of a certain thing St. John’s was doing on defense,” Coale said. “We weren’t turning it over against the press. We weren’t turning it over trying to feed the post. We weren’t being denied on the wing … It was dribble off your foot, just crazy stuff. And there’s no rhyme or reason to that, so it’s hard to stem.”
That crazy stuff, although it looks crazy, is by the design of St. John’s. The team tries to tire their opponent and make them overthink maintaining positive possessions.
“I think that’s probably more of it – it’s not so much that we get steals,” Barnes Arico said. “I think we really wear people down. I think we try to hedge hard from screens. I think sometimes we try to double the post and I think we really work on our rotations. Because we are undersized we try to take advantage of our speed, so we try to make people feel uncomfortable. And a lot of times it’s just in half court, man-to-man defense, it’s nothing tricky.”
All those turnovers meant the Red Storm had 17 more chances to score than the Sooners. And although OU shot better by percentage, the Sooners were four field goals shy of the mark set by the Johnnies.
Despite all those turnovers, the closely-contested game came down to the final minutes. When junior point guard Nadirah McKenith hit the deck hard with 5:50 to play, the St. John’s lead was just one point. As she wobbled off the court looking to be in bad shape, the man next to me exclaimed, “that’s their best player!”
But she wasn’t done for the night, not at all.
When the Red Storm’s best player came back into the game with four minutes left, she scored what proved to be the game-winning bucket with 1:41 to play. If you don’t remember all the way back to the Creighton game, McKenith hit the game-winner with 0.1 seconds left on Sunday.
“Today at the end of the game, we called that play for her,” Barnes Arico said. “Any time we need a basket, we want the ball in her hands and she makes it happen. I’ve watched this kid for three years make play after play after play.”
The St. John’s lead was 72-68. OU got just two more points in the game, but had multiple chances for more. In fact, OU missed five looks at the basket in the last 39 seconds as the Red Storm hung on for the 74-70 victory.
“Their point guard is heady and tough and she made a couple of really big plays late,” Coale said of McKenith before lamenting, “I thought down the stretch, boy we had some good shots; some good shots that just didn’t go in. Some close ones, some wide open threes, some really good shots that didn’t go in and you’ve got to make those to win games and they did. They made them.”
And that’s all it took for the Red Storm to extend their trip to a coast-to-coast affair – Fresno or bust.