St. John’s might have glimpsed its future on Wednesday night and it looked very bright.
Center Kassoum Yakwe shook off his poor start to the season, became a scoring force in the paint and it was transformative for the Red Storm as it rolled past Marquette in an 86-72 Big East win at Madison Square Garden. The Golden Eagles couldn’t focus only on the perimeter and it opened the floor for Shamorie Ponds, Marcus LoVett and Bashir Ahmed to score almost at will.
The victory, which Storm coach Chris Mullin called “our best 40-minute performance — a complete game” was inspiring to fans who witnessed it. Tennis great John McEnroe left his first-row seat and joined the Storm players in their huddle right before the start of the second half.
“John’s the ultimate competitor, the ultimate New Yorker,” St. John’s coach Chris Mullin said of his longtime friend. “It’s nice to have that support.”
Asked if he knew McEnroe would do that, Mullin replied “John does whatever he wants.”
What did McEnroe say? “He said ‘just get after it.’ He was like ‘go kick their [butts],’ ” Ahmed said.
St. John’s (11-13, 5-6) has now won three of its last five games and looks better than the eighth-place team that was prognosticated by conference coaches in their preseason poll.
Ahmed had 23 points, Ponds had 18 points and five assists and LoVett had 17 points and five assists. But no contribution was bigger than Yakwe’s season-high 14 points to go with six rebounds and three blocked shots.
“We’re a different team when Kassoum is on fire like that,” LoVett said.
Yakwe has been a mystery this season. As a freshman during the disaster 8-24 season, he stood out as one of the team’s better players. The athletic 6-7 forward from Mali averaged 7.1 points, 5.5 rebounds and a Big East-leading 2.7 blocked shots. It earned him a spot on the conference’s all-Freshman team. It’s been a very different story as a sophomore. Yakwe was averaging 3.7 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.1 blocks coming into the game.
He hadn’t played with confidence and got into early foul trouble several times. His step back, along with the transfer of center Yankubu Sima, had left St. John’s with little interior presence and it figured to be a big factor against the Golden Eagles and 6-11 center Luke Fischer.
“I know I wasn’t playing that good, the way I did last year. But I just keep practicing — ‘sometime it’s going to happen.’ Keep playing hard and sometime I am going to get a good result,” he said. “Today was the perfect moment for me. I played my ass off and we got a win.”
He had eight of his points in a 20-10 run that put the Storm up 37-33 shortly before halftime. After the break Ahmed had six points and LoVett five in a 13-0 burst for a 68-51 edge. Marquette (14-8, 5-5) never got back closer than seven points.
Yakwe allowed all that to happen.
“Tonight he got confident and more decisive,” Mullin said.