By Zach Gewelb
Madison Square Garden serves as St. John’s University’s home away from home and the Johnnies (9-2) protected their home court, defeating Iona (5-5) 69-59 in a men’s hoops tilt Sunday night at the “World’s Most Famous Arena.”
Five different players recorded double-digit scoring numbers to help guide St. John’s to victory, which boosted its record to 9-2 on the season.
Shamorie Ponds finished with a game-high 16 points, while Justin Simon tallied 15. Bashir Ahmed, Marvin Clark II and Tariq Owens each added 12 points.
The teams were locked in a 25-25 tie after a back-and-forth first half before the Johnnies outscored their opponent 44-34 in the second half to secure the victory.
St. John’s head coach Chris Mullin admitted his team struggled in the first half, but was proud of the way his players responded after the intermission.
“We didn’t play that well in the first half, but I don’t think it had anything to do with our opponent. I thought we got good looks, missed a lot of easy shots, and I think when you do that, no matter who you are playing against, it keeps that team in the game,” Mullin said.
“I thought we played with a little more energy and moved our bodies in the second half. Just put some energy into the game, into our cuts, moved the ball a little better, and as crazy as it may sound, we made about three or four layups and created some separation,” he said.
“When we made that little separation, we made two-or-three wide-open layups and it helped us get a little separation.”
Second half dominance has been a trend for St. John’s this season. The Johnnies’ have outscored their opponents by 103 points in the second half through their first 11 games of the season.
“Maybe they need a little sweat or something to get going,” Mullin said. “I don’t know. We don’t do a whole lot differently preparation-wise as far as eating our meals at the same time and things like that. I wouldn’t say we played so well in the second half today, but we played better.”
Ponds played a big factor in the second half, pouring 14 of his 16 points in the final frame. Ponds penetrated the lane to get the free-throw line often, where he went a perfect 8-for-8.
Simon padded his stats in the second half, finishing with seven rebounds, four steals and three assists to go along with his 15 points. Simon said he the enthusiasm from the stands helped him lock in on the floor.
“You could just feel the energy from the crowd. It was a great environment that we had tonight. Hopefully the next time we play we will have the entire place packed out,” Simon said. “You could feel the energy in there and I think that really just motivated us a lot to just play hard, play our game and have fun.”
While the Johnnies’ offense thrived in the second half, it was their defense that played perhaps the biggest role in securing the victory. St. John’s entered the contest ranked 18th in the NCAA in scoring defense (62.2 points per game) and limited Iona to fewer than 60 points, the seventh time the Red Storm accomplished the feat this season.
The Johnnies’ used their length to disrupt the Gaels, recording 10 blocks in the winning effort. That helped them build their lead to as many as 20 when they took a 52-32 lead midway through the second half. Iona pulled to within seven at 58-51, but the Johnnies thwarted the comeback attempt to secure the victory.
St. John’s is hoping to take their momentum into conference play, which begins next week when the Johnnies take on Providence at Carnesecca Arena Thursday, Dec. 28.
“I think all of our preparation we have done up until now is for the Big East,” Mullin said. “If we can make some three’s, rebound the ball better, come out with some energy in the first half, and these are all things that I think we are going to do. We don’t carry this game over into the next one, but we’ll keep working on it.”
Reach reporter Zach Gewelb by e-mail at zgewe