By Laura Amato
It felt like turning a corner.
The St. John’s men’s basketball team opened Big East play with a 76-73 victory over No. 13 Butler at Carnesecca Arena Dec. 29. The win represents the first time a Chris Mullin-coached squad has defeated a nationally ranked rival.
The victory came just over a week after the Red Storm took down former Big East foe Syracuse 93-60 and the strong back-to-back performances have St. John’s thinking it has finally hit its stride.
“It’s a legitimate process,” Mullin said. “Games like this are more important for them and gives them the confidence and trust in each other that what they’re doing is right. Nothing helps more than this.”
The Red Storm (7-7, 1-0) held their own in the first half, going into the break tied at 48, but St. John’s struggled to maintain the tempo in the start of the second half. Butler (11-2, 0-1) started hitting shots midway through the half to build a 10-point cushion with just over 10 minutes left on the clock.
St. John’s never lost the faith. And, unlike games last season and even earlier this year, the Red Storm rallied when they had to, sticking to the game plan on both sides of the ball.
“We just tried to stay together and stay poised,” said guard Shamorie Ponds, who finished with a game-high 26 points. “When they took the lead, we just stayed together.”
The Red Storm clawed their way back into the matchup, making it a three-point game after a pair of Bashir Ahmed free throws with 4:03 left to play. Ponds drained a nothing-but-net three-pointer three minutes later and Malik Ellison followed up with a steal and a slam to tie the game at 69 and effectively knock the roof off Carnesecca.
“I kept saying to them, it’s waiting to blow up, give them something to cheer about,” Mullin said. “We hung in there and got through some tough times there.”
Tyler Wideman put Butler back on top on the ensuing possession, but Marcus LoVett followed with a jumper in the corner to tie the game for the sixth time.
“That was critical, give them credit,” Bulldogs coach Chris Holtmann said. “We weren’t nearly tough enough in our approach.”
Ellison played hero on the next play, drawing a foul on the defensive side of the ball while going for a rebound. He hit one of two free throws to give St. John’s a lead it would never surrender.
Ponds followed up two free throws of his own – drawing a whistle after Tariq Owens hauled in the offensive rebound on Ellison’s miss. The freshman finished a perfect 4-for-4 from the stripe in the final 9.1 seconds and recorded his sixth 20-plus point performance this year.
“I was confident,” Ponds said. “I was going to the foul line, just saying that I was going to make these free throws.”
The Bulldogs had two more chances to tie the game, but Andrew Chrabascz’s step-back three missed the mark and a desperation half-court shot at the buzzer clanked off the iron.
It’s the biggest victory for the Red Storm in the Mullin-era and while the team is feeling good, St. John’s isn’t quite satisfied yet.
“We needed this win a lot,” Ponds said. “We feel like every game if we come out and compete, we’re unstoppable.”