As far as the St. John’s players are concerned, they have the world’s most famous home-court advantage. There is no place like Madison Square Garden, which is good news for the Red Storm and possibly a very favorable forecast heading into the Big East Tournament.
“I’m glad that they’re comfortable playing here. People can say what they want, [but] there is a transition between playing anywhere and Madison Square Garden,” Chris Mullin said Saturday after his team channeled the place’s noise into poise, held on to beat Georgetown, 86-80, and built a head of steam toward the conference tournament, which will be held on the same court March 8-11.
St. John’s withstood the Hoyas’ 17-0 run in the first half (after having gone on its own 17-0 spurt) and overcame the loss of three big men either to foul trouble (Kassoum Yakwe and Darien Williams) or injury (Tariq Owens left with a sprained ankle with 10:20 remaining).
The Red Storm improved to 7-9 in the conference and 13-16 overall with its third consecutive win on 33rd Street.
Freshman Shamorie Ponds, who led St. John’s with 24 points and took over at the end, said: “Here, we’ve got a lot more confidence. With them rooting for us, it just boosts our confidence a lot.”
To roars from 11,277, Ponds made two free throws with 54.7 seconds left — on his first trip to the line — after Georgetown cut a seven-point lead to one.
Performing in the venue billed as “The World’s Most Famous Arena” can be as daunting as it is inspiring. Mullin acknowledged that his team had not been invigorated at the Garden last year or earlier this season. The Storm has gotten over that.
“We talked about it yesterday: To be a good team, the first thing you have to do is protect home court,” he said. “And to be above average, you win on the road.”
Georgetown coach John Thompson III said: “Without a doubt, even watching film, you see they do get a different energy playing in this building. But we did a poor job today.”
The Hoyas (14-15, 5-11) committed 16 first-half turnovers and resorted to a better-ballhandling small unit in the second half, negating some of its size advantage.
St. John’s and its crowd received several timely sparks. First there was Federico Mussini, the high scorer last season who has adjusted to coming off the bench. He made two three-pointers and two free throws and played good defense as the Storm turned a three-point deficit into a 14-point lead in the first half.
“I know I need to bring energy every night, especially on defense,” he said after scoring 16 points.
Bashir Ahmed also scored 16 and made a game-saving block on Marcus Derrickson’s three-point try with 14 seconds left and the Storm leading by four.
Mullin knows there is work to do. St. John’s has lost its past three road games by an average of 19.7 points. But earlier, he said the Storm got the hang of playing at Carnesecca Arena this season, too. “I think these guys feed off the crowd, for sure,” he said of a team that has gone a long way while being at home.