It was about four minutes into the second half Friday night and St. John’s was running the break on Bethune-Cookman in a gear that it didn’t have last season. As point guard Marcus LoVett jetted across the top of the lane, he found slashing swingman Malik Ellison with a no-look shovel pass for a layup and a 29-point lead.
When the Wildcats called timeout after the play — and before Red Storm coach Chris Mullin broke the huddle with his staff — LoVett stood in front of his seated teammates exhorting them.
It’s way too early to forecast a quantum leap for St. John’s, and it would be pushing things to call its 100-53 thrashing of Bethune-Cookman before 4,371 at Carnesecca Arena a bellwether. Still, the Red Storm looks vastly improved with the addition of Mullin’s second recruiting class. It is faster. It is deeper. It has more weapons to deploy.
And now it also no longer wears the ugly stain of last season’s 8-24 record. St. John’s is a sparkling 1-0 after winning its 13th straight home opener.
LoVett was supposed to be the signature player in Mullin’s debut season but was declared a partial qualifier and had to sit out. In his collegiate debut he lived up to his billing as a transformative performer with 19 points, seven assists and one turnover. He truly stood out.
“Marcus had a great game. He had total command when he was out there,” Mullin said. “Good decisions. His explosiveness and speed are very valuable. And he generated a lot of the unselfishness. He had a lot to do with 21 assists on 33 baskets.”
Another player making his Storm debut also stood out. Tariq Owens, the 6-11 Tennessee transfer, had nine points, shooting 4-for-5, plus four rebounds and five blocked shots in 13 minutes.
“Tariq? Tonight was probably the best we’ve seen,” Mullin said..
Federico Mussini, last season’s leading scorer, had 20 points and was 5-for-6 on threes and Malik Ellison and Yankubu Sima had 11 points each. Freshman Shamorie Ponds, the signature player in the second recruiting class, had eight points and three assists in his first college game.
Quinton Forrest had 12 points for Bethune Cookman
St. John’s was up 47-31 at halftime and broke the game wide open by scoring the first 16 points of the second half. Owens had seven of them, including a dunk on a three-point play.
Mullin wouldn’t commit to a starting five before game time and deviated from what he had used in the exhibition win over Division III Baruch and the closed scrimmage against Rhode Island. He didn’t start LoVett or Kassoum Yakwe and instead went with Ellison, Ponds, Owens, Bashir Ahmed and Sima; only Sima and Ellison played for the Storm last season.
But when LoVett came off the bench and stepped into the point guard spot, it changed things. He was the catalyst on a 12-2 run with a pair of assists and a fast-break layup off a Ponds steal that put St. John’s up 18-11.
Later in the half he scored eight straight points and fed Ponds on a three-pointer in a 13-4 run and he closed the half with a step-back three-pointer, giving him 13 points and St. John’s a 47-31 halftime lead.
“We need to react to last season and show we can be good,” Mussini said. “Last season was not good. We will go out every night to show we’re different now.”