Ron Mvouika was alone when the ball came to him on the right wing with time to check that his feet were behind the three-point arc and to line up a shot that would splash perfectly through the net to wipe out a 17-point Marquette lead and put St. John’s ahead by one point with 3:14 left in a first-round Big East playoff game Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden.
The home crowd let out a roar that momentarily made the pain of one win in the previous 21 games fade. But that was as good as it got for the Red Storm before the Golden Eagles pulled out a 101-93 victory to advance to the quarterfinals tonight against No. 5 Xavier. At least, it was an exciting end to Chris Mullin’s rugged 8-24 first season as coach.
“It was a tough season,” said Mullin, who praised his players’ effort and persistence. “I think they will be remembered for having a professional and positive-energy approach each and every day. The results were frustrating, don’t get me wrong. It’s a lot to deal with…But they didn’t waver at all.”
Christian Jones was a revelation for the Red Storm with a career-high 29 points on 13-of-21 shooting and a team-high seven rebounds. Federico Mussini chipped in 15 points, Durand Johnson added 13, and Malik Ellison had 10 points and five assists.
Big East freshman of the year Henry Ellenson led Marquette (20-12) with 27 points, 14 rebounds and, more amazingly, was the only player who had zero fouls in a game in which the officials called 53. Juan Johnson came off the bench to score 23, Haanif Cheatham had 19, and Duane Wilson added 14 for the Golden Eagles.
The game was typical for the Red Storm, which gave up 20 points off turnovers as Marquette ran up a 12-0 advantage in fast-break points on the way to a 50-38 halftime lead. The Eagles had 12 layups, putbacks or dunks, which explained their 63.0 percent first-half shooting (17 of 27).
Marquette pushed its lead to 75-58 with 11:46 still left to play. But St. John’s refused to give up the ghost of a horrible season, going on an extended 31-13 run to take an 89-88 lead when Mvouika’s go-ahead basket went in. As one of two graduate student transfers (along with Johnson) who led a young team through tough times, it was a special Garden moment for Mvouika.
“I was just happy to make that shot,” Mvouika said. “We’ve been doing this all year. We always kept fighting. I’m proud of our guys and proud of our coaching staff. They never gave up on us. We laid it out. I can go out with my head up.”
Jones, a redshirt junior, was an example of the progress made despite the record. “With the freshmen we have, we all hit a wall,” Jones said. “We went through adversity losing (16 games) in a row, but the coaching staff kept pushing us, and that motivated us and gave us the drive. We improved game by game . . . We just need to find a way to get over that hump and break through.”