Thursday, February 8, 2018

Green: How St. John’s turned the college basketball world upside down in a four-day stretch

Photo Credit: St. John's Athletic Department

Heading into action last Saturday, the St. John’s Red Storm appeared to be on the verge of being a non-factor once more in Big East play under second-year coach Chris Mullin at 0-11.

Who could blame anyone, heck even the smartest college basketball fan thought after coming up short in a 73-68 loss on Jan. 30 to then- No. 6 Xavier that St. John’s losing streak would extend by more than 11 games. The gauntlet went from league play to perennial non-conference rivals in the Duke Blue Devils, who came in ranked No. 4 in the Associated Press poll.

The upstart Red Storm decided to go against the script of being heavy underdogs and matched the Blue Devils blow by blow and saw their lead grow to as many as 11 points in the second half. Things appeared to come back to reality for St. John’s as Duke took the lead at 73-72 on a pair of free throws from Gary Trent, Jr. with 1:34 left.

However, St. John’s harkened back to the days of Mullin as a player in the peak days of the 1980’s with Shamorie Ponds leading the way late to game-high 33 points in an 81-77 upset of Duke at Madison Square Garden.

"We were a bit better in making free throws, layups and taking care of the ball," Mullin said during Thursday's Big East teleconference. "We have been really solid on defense all season long, but have not been converting when it matters, so it's good to see things pay off in the last two games."

In a blink of an eye, St. John’s went from the ugly duckling to the princess on the dance floor as the Big East would be back in the national discussion across the country. The celebration looked to be short lived as the Red Storm jumped back into league play on the road against the top-ranked Villanova Wildcats Wednesday night.

At this point, most included myself thought all of the energy St. John’s expended against Duke would not filter into the Villanova game. The Red Storm controlled the tempo for the majority of the game behind Ponds' 26 points and hung on despite one final rally late by the Wildcats for a 79-75 upset and their first win in Big East play.

The Red Storm proved to the majority of the country, including myself by producing back-to-back wins over top 5 teams that has given Mullin the well deserved attention and a good starting point towards building for the remainder of the regular season as he emphasized late-game executions.

"Late game executions are really important. It is a 40-minute game and the thing is it helps build confidence to be able to fight through the adversity and potentially win more down the line," Mullin said.

Only time will tell on sustained success in the future, but in the interim, St. John’s will continue to relish the role of spoiler.

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