St. John’s pretty much saved its season on Wednesday night.
The Red Storm put the brakes on a three-game slide and likely lifted itself out of any peril about missing the NCAA Tournament with its 82-74 take down of DePaul in a Big East Tournament opening-round game before a sellout crowd of 19,812 at Madison Square Garden.
The Red Storm (21-11) had slipped from sole possession of third place in the conference to the seventh seed in the conference tournament over 18 winless days. They had perhaps tarnished a once-strong resume to put a possible first tourney berth since 2015 – and first under coach Chris Mullin – in danger.
DePaul had been a handful for St. John’s this season, winning twice in the teams’ two regular season meetings, the last behind 43 points from Max Strus on March 3. Justin Simon broke the Demons stranglehold on the Storm with an exceptional game on both ends of the floor.
Simon was named the Big East Defensive Player of the Year this week and he turned off the tap on Blue Demons leading scorer Max Strus, limiting him to 14 points on 4-for-12 shooting. He also had 18 points, six rebounds and four assists.
Shamorie Ponds came on in the second half to push the lead into double digits and then close things out. The St. John’s star had 11 of his 18 points in the second half. He also finished with seven assists.
Next up for the Red Storm is a 7 p.m. quarterfinal against second-seeded and 23rd-ranked Marquette (23-8), a team St. John’s beat twice and comes into the game having lost four straight. Could this significant win be the match to the fuse on a conference tourney run?
“We had to get a win here,” Ponds said. “Now I feel like our guys are confident enough to win four games … I felt with this group we could do something special. We packed for four days.”
“Red Storm Nation was behind us,” Simon said. “It helped with those energy plays tonight.”
Mustapha Heron added 18 points, LJ Figueroa had 13 points and Marvin Clark II had 10 points for St. John’s. Eli Cain had 23 points and Devin Gage had 17 points for DePaul (15-15).
St. John’s never trailed, though it did blow a 16-6 margin and fall into a tie at 27 on two Cain free throws. Simon scored St. John’s last eight points before the intermission for a 39-35 lead. Strus has just six points at the break.
He will have to face Big East Player of the Year Markus Howard Thursday.
“I’m always ready to accept a challenge,” Simon said of defending Strus. “A moment like this? A game like this? [It’s] just locking in. It’s what you play for. You play for moments like this.”
Mullin said Simon’s defensive game ranks among his best, but added “it shows up when you play against a guy like Strus and Markus Howard and things like that, but he's done [great] stuff in games where maybe he didn't shine as much.”
Ponds came on strong in the second half. He’d had a relatively quiet first half with seven points and two assists, but had six and two in the first eight minutes after the break — including an alley-oop to Figueroa — as the Storm opened the lead up to double figures for the first time since the early going.
His jumper in the lane with 11:07 to go made it 62-48 as the St. John’s lead got as big as 17.
“There was a total team effort, but these two guys set the tone for everything,” Mullin said, gesturing to Ponds and Simon after the game. “Like most teams, the guards set the table . . Tonight they led the way.”