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NJIT presses but doesn't threaten St. John's

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It stayed too close for too long, but the Red Storm of St. John's knocked off NJIT 55-37. Amber Thompson's 14 points and 11 rebounds led St. John's, with Nadirah McKenith adding 13 points and eight assists. Rayven Johnson had 13 of her 15 points in the second half to lead the Highlanders.

Photo by Debby Wong | USA Today Sports Images

I'm a bit worried. My phone resurrected itself from having been immersed in a watery grave, and we did lose to Quinnipiac, so I suppose all kinds of miracles are possible during the holiday season. I shouldn't have to worry about NJIT, but after we gave up a halftime lead to Quinnipiac, I reserve the right to worry about anyone and everyone until we prove that we can beat the teams that we're supposed to beat, let alone the teams we're not supposed to beat.

It's cold in New York, dry and sharp with harsh winds that might bring a tear to your eye, depending on how you react to extreme chill. On a Friday night the weekend before New Year's, that probably means that Carnesecca will be cold, not enough body heat rising from the sparse crowd to make up for the winter air that sneaks uninvited into the arena with the doors constantly opening. It probably also means that NJIT friends and family will be numerous, meaning that my observational skills will suffer as I defend our turf.

Of course, I forgot that today was the Girl Scout fest, so there were plenty of people there to keep the arena warm and cheer for St. John's. (Which was good, because the NJIT players were loudly chanting "DE-FENSE" every time St. John's had the ball. Is this becoming a thing now? Because then I have to yell over the other team, and that's always annoying, plus it disrupts the crucial communication between the dance team and the cheer squad to get the chants going.) The Girl Scouts in front of us were loud, and they had signs. By the end of the game, they were even trying to disconcert the free throw shooter. We gave one of them a shirt. It was too small for us anyway, and it's always good to establish friendly relations with the neighbors.

The band was short-handed today, and though they played valiantly, it was clear that they were out of sync. I thought the bandleader was going to let the trumpets have it after the anthem. The drummers made up for it later, but you could tell that there were a lot, a lot of absent folks.

NJIT did a pregame huddle/group hug thing in the corner of the gym that leads to the St. John's locker room. This could have been extremely awkward if the timing had been off, but fortunately, they were out of the way before St. John's went back to their locker room. It seemed like an odd place to do that kind of thing, though.

I cannot say enough about little bitty Alyssa Albanese for the Highlanders. She drove the lane in ways that reminded me a little bit of Becky Hammon. She pulled out one shot through and between her legs that had the people around us oohing and aahing with respect and awe. (You'll see why this was a deal later.) She got into foul trouble more in the second half, upping the physicality of her game somewhat. But she was tough on the ball, too, grabbing passes and making interceptions. Nicole Maticka used her long skinny arms effectively on defense, swatting passes and shots, but hip-checking Briana Brown into the dance team didn't exactly endear her to the home crowd for some reason. Martina Matejcikova provided the PA announcer with a bit of a challenge, which he aced with flying colors.

I don't remember much of what Kimberly Dweck did, to the point where I was starting to wonder if she was only starting because of senior privilege, but everyone's entitled to that one bad game, especially when playing an opponent out of your weight class. Rayven Johnson was spectacularly bad at shooting free throws, although given that the ones she missed were at our end of the floor and she made all the ones she took at the other end of the floor, my husband and I will take credit for defending our home court in that regard. She got more aggressive in the second half, both in the paint and with a jumper. Sarah Olson's three-point shot fell at inopportune times for St. John's, but the part I remember most was her dramatic stagger after a small push. It wasn't quite Mery Andrade or DeMya Walker level- perhaps Danielle Adams, but in a different weight class, as it were. I have a general sense of her being annoying. Melanie Griffin didn't make much of an impression; I think she was more of a spare part during long stretches of the game. Uju Nwankwo was physical for her size, but wasn't able to make anything happen when she had bigger players coming at her. Good heart, just out of her weight class.

NJIT kept the defense coming and exploited some of our defensive lapses in ways that better teams never managed to. I was impressed with their heart and hustle.

Ashley Perez got some extended minutes for the first time in a while, and unfortunately proved why she hadn't been getting them before. She was exceptionally slow on defense, getting beaten badly on two separate occasions because she was out of position and caught behind her assignment. And if she can't get her shot going, then she's a liability until she catches up to the speed of the Division I game. I thought she had, but I guess Farmingdale was a worse team than I initially realized. Sandra Udobi also got a lot of time, since Mary Nwachukwu did not dress (she was wearing a boot, and later reports indicate that she had a foot injury that caused Coach Tartamella to hold her out for precautionary reasons). There were moments when she definitely looked like a freshman, such as when it looked like she was going to put back a missed Highlander free throw, and when the balls went off her hands, but she showed a good eye for rebounding position and a lot of promise. Keylantra Langley's hands were active on disruptive defense, and of course she hit the shot with seven seconds left on the clock that she couldn't hit with twenty-four seconds left on the clock. If it didn't tend to work in our favor, I'd be more frustrated by it, but instead I find it to be one of her more endearing qualities.

Mallory Jones lives! She was out of commission for so long that I thought she had gone home to Virginia or something, but she was back on the bench tonight, keeping Mary company in some very cute shoes. (Not my personal taste, but she wore them well.) And Ced Gibson got to wear her uniform! Somehow she looks even smaller. I thought the baggy uniform would make her look bigger.

Briana Brown got the worst of all the contact. How someone gets hit in the head and isn't rewarded with free throws, I'll never know. Her shot was badly off, but she still hit the deck on the regular. Shenneika Smith was the first one to admit that she didn't have a great game, and she's right. Her shot wasn't falling, though one of those usually-ill-considered floaters of hers went down at the right time. Also really not sure what was up with that high arcing thing that looked like either a deflected shot or an alley-oop pass. The long arms were still there and still deflecting things. I like when she does that. Go-go Gadget Shenneika! Amber Thompson finally got going, which made me very happy. She needs to move her feet better on defense- she got stuck a couple of times and got badly burned by smaller players (I think she was on Johnson, but don't hold me to it). I love when she goes strong to the basket and hits those shots in the paint, and when she goes up strong for rebounds. Go Amber! I believe you can be even more awesome than you already are! Grab ALL the rebounds! Nadirah McKenith looked a little gimpy at the start of the game, going up gingerly on her lay-ups and leaving them short. Whatever she did after Coach eventually subbed her out seemed to work, because when she came back in she was slicing through defenses like she always does, plus going to her jumper (which was smoother than usual). Aliyyah Handford continues to impress me with how quickly she's adapted to the college game. We'll have to see how she plays in conference to see how she really looks, but she's been great on defense and she got the offense going for us today when it looked like no one else was going to be able to hit a shot.

I really hope that Coach Tartamella gets comfortable with his personnel soon and gets a feel for who needs to come in at what point and when certain players need to come out of the game. From where we were sitting in the bleachers, it seemed obvious when Nadirah was hurting, but he kept running with her. I don't know if he's just not sure whether to believe the evidence of his eyes or what his players tell him, or if he thinks that pulling a starter early will forever wreck their confidence and cause him to lose the respect of his team, but if he runs them into the ground, it's not going to end well for them either. I'm just saying.

In general, the effort in this game was sloppy, though it picked up in the second half for a stretch before clock-ball began at about the three-minute mark.

The refs were disappointingly inconsistent; I expect better out of Lonergan and St. Pierre. How are you going to let a player get hit in the head at one end of the floor and not call a foul, and then turn around and call the same player for a touch foul on a loose ball at the other end of the floor? I think the officials were affected by who was playing the game instead of just doing their jobs as impartial observers.

So there were a lot of tall guys in sweats behind me. I think four or five of the guys from the men's team were in the house for the game. Since I don't follow men's basketball, I wouldn't know any of them from a hole in the wall, so I pretty much left them alone, even if I did want to ask if any of them did any fancy stunts on the rim at the last home game, since the aforementioned rim was doing very things all night for both teams. But they were the ones making the loudest impressed noises when Albanese made that crazy shot, so you know it had to be good.

I guess because of Girl Scouts, today was the autograph session. I'm relieved; I was worried that it was going to be the Syracuse game, which I have to miss because my supervisor is on vacation that week so I can't just call out for day games and you don't care. We lingered to throw our pink ducks to Crush Clare Droesch (seriously, St. John's graphics people, can we please abbreviate "Crush Cancer for Clare Droesch Fund" to something that sounds a little less murderous?) and let Girl Scouts go ahead of us on the autograph line. Half the team was out in the promised ten minutes. The rest were held for media obligations and social necessities. I wasn't sure if Shenneika was ever going to escape. Nadirah also got held up by small children thinking that she was awesome. (Which she is. But if you've seen St. John's or read the Game Notes of Doom, you already knew that.) We ended up standing behind Amber's mom in the line. She comes prepared! She had a whole pile of the scorecards from the Chartwells tournament, when Amber was on the poster, and gave them out to all and sundry. It was sort of adorable, especially when Amber's mom starting being all mom-ish on Amber and Amber's response being to sign the back of the team poster.

The big poster goes up somewhere in the house. Somewhere. Maybe if we move Essence and Sue over... oh, the perils of living in a women's basketball fancave. The little poster goes in my cubicle and makes me happy when I want to strangle people at the office. The team seemed friendlier this year, if not quite as effusively outgoing as some past teams have. Then again, it's harder to be more outgoing than Sky Lindsay.

I'm glad we won, but we should have won by more. We can't play like this against Delle Donne. We have to be on top of our game against Delle Donne. This is the last chance we have to make a splash before the conference season starts. I know we can do this. I believe in this team.

Since I expect these to be the last Game Notes of Doom before the calendar year comes to a close and I start tagging things for 2013: I wish you all a happy New Year, a joyous Festivus, a wonderful Kwanzaa, and of course, a merry little Christmas (okay, that one's more than a week and at least one more set of notes away, but still)! Enjoy your five golden rings and four calling birds, and I'll see you all after the ball drops!