In an inconsistent and rebuilding season for the St. John’s program, one thing that had stood out was the way the Red Storm had taken to playing at Madison Square Garden. The Storm played three February games in The World’s Most Famous Arena and won all three. And the specter of playing on that floor in the Big East Tournament grew to seem very dangerous.
Then came Saturday’s regular-season finale against Providence at the Garden, in which St. John’s looked anything but lethal. The Red Storm started with perhaps its worst first half of the season, was never really in the game and lost, 86-75, before 8,826.
“I just kept waiting and waiting for something to happen and someone to step up,” Red Storm coach Chris Mullin said. “No energy. No pop. It’s like we were sleepwalking. I told them it’s always that balance of being prepared and being rested and being sharp. I’ve got to do a better job . . . That was pretty brutal.”
The players couldn’t deny how poor their performance was.
“We weren’t active on the ball defensively. They were getting where they needed to go and we didn’t have [any] resistance,” said Shamorie Ponds, whose final statement before coaches vote on Big East Freshman of the Year was a career-high 29 points. “They just threw the first punch at us and we couldn’t recover.
Said Bashir Ahmed: “We didn’t play hard enough.”
Whatever momentum St. John’s (13-18, 7-11) seemed to have Feb. 25 when it finished the month by sweeping Marquette, Seton Hall and Georgetown out of the Garden is gone. The Red Storm is seeded eighth of 10 and will enter the conference tournament having lost four of five.
Providence, on the other hand, has a ton of momentum. The victory gave the Friars (20-11, 10-8) six straight conference wins for the first time since 2004. Picked ninth in the preseason poll of Big East coaches, Providence has secured the No. 3 seed.
St. John’s will face ninth-seeded Georgetown in a 7 p.m. out-bracket game Wednesday.
St. John’s was fortunate to be down only 37-25 after its worst shooting half of the season. The Storm was 4-for-21 (19 percent) from the floor, including 1-for-10 on three-point attempts. “We were missing shots and kept thinking about the shots” instead of playing defense, Ahmed said. What kept St. John’s in the game at that point was the cascade of Providence fouls that produced 15 successful free throws.
The Storm continued to somnambulate into the second half and the margin grew to 18. It was 14 entering the final two minutes, when Ponds blitzed the Friars for 11 of his points. Still, St. John’s never got closer than seven.
Ahmed had 18 points and Marcus LoVett added 12 for St. John’s. Isaiah Jackson scored 18 and Jalen Lindsey and Alpha Diallo had 17 each for Providence.
St. John’s already was locked into the No. 8 seed before tip-off. Mullin was asked afterward if that made a difference.
“I don’t think so. I know it didn’t to me,’’ he said. “I’m not sure our guys look at standings, really, when you’re in the eighth spot . . . You can’t pick and choose when you play. Are you kidding me? Come and compete no matter what. Those factors, maybe I am oblivious to it, but I would hope not . . . I’m pretty out of touch, and that might be the case. If it is, I won’t be sitting here much longer.”