Nothing comes easy for this St. John’s team.
After putting itself in a precarious spot over the weekend by dropping a key Garden contest to Providence, the Red Storm managed to right its ship Tuesday night against Butler, though they did so with a high degree of difficulty. The Storm did not trail Butler until the final 16.5 seconds of regulation, tied the score to force overtime when Shamorie Ponds made one of two free throws with 4.1 seconds to play and then eked out a 77-73 Big East win before 5,602 at Carnesecca Arena.
The Red Storm (18-7, 6-6) now stand alone in third place in the conference standings.
The Storm led by as many as 13 points in the first half and 11 after halftime, but Butler’s Paul Jorgensen’s floater in the lane hung on the rim and dropped through with 16.5 seconds to play in regulation to put the Bulldogs up for the first time at 66-65.
“They were going to make a run,” said coach Chris Mullin, whose Storm lost, 80-71, to Butler on Jan. 19 in Indianapolis. “They’re a good team. We know that. This wasn’t going to be wire to wire.”
Mustapha Heron came up biggest of all the Storm players after missing the Providence loss with a bruised right knee that he described as limiting his range of motion. He scored 28 points, including six during the extra period — all on free throws after driving to the rim.
Marvin Clark II, who pointed the finger at himself after the weekend loss for taking just six shots and scoring only six points, had 18 points. Ponds had 14 points and four of the Storm’s 12 steals.
Butler had a chance to tie the score or take the lead in the final seconds of overtime with the score 75-73, but Jorgensen’s twisting teardrop in the lane caromed off. Heron hit two free throws with 1.9 seconds left to ice it.
Kamar Baldwin scored 16 and Jorgensen 15 for Butler (14-11, 5-7).
Clark said the contest “definitely felt like a March or NCAA Madness type game” and that might be a good thing for St. John’s because it seems as if every game for a month has had implications for it reaching its first NCAA Tournament since 2015.
“It’s a crucial time in the season. We know we have to win games down the stretch,” Heron said as he sat with Clark after the game. The transfers — from Auburn and Michigan State, respectively -- have played in an NCAA Tournament and most Storm players have not. “We’ve been to the tournament and we know this is a crucial time during the season. This right here and the conference tournament will be crucial for making the tournament
“This is going to help us down the road,” he added. “ It was a high-intensity game. The fact we went to overtime . . . this will prepare us for March."
Butler, which trailed 38-30 at the half, got back into the game with 11 unanswered points in the middle of the second half, including four points each from Baldwin and Nate Fowler. Fowler’s layup from Baldwin with 10:41 to play tied the game at 51.
Freshman Josh Roberts — who may have supplanted Sedee Keita as the first "big" off the bench for the Storm — scored on a putback on the ensuing possession and, about two minutes later, Heron streaked the final 47 feet of the court for a transition layup and a 55-51 lead. But it wouldn’t last as Butler scored six straight points for that 66-65 lead.
In the first half, it was clear that Heron was feeling more like himself and not feeling any residual issues from the knee bruise. On two different possessions, he split the defense and took it in for a dunk. On one, his initial fake left the Bulldogs’ Jordan Tucker on the floor.
“He had a great game,” Mullin said. “His decision-making . . . when to attack was great.”