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Sloppy St. John's eliminated from NCAA Tournament with loss to Arizona State in First Four

Red Storm shoots a season-low 31.9 percent from the field, including 8-for-31 on three-pointers, and commits 16 turnovers in First Four loss to Arizona State.

Justin Simon, No. 5, of the St. John's

Justin Simon, No. 5, of the St. John's Red Storm during the second half against the Arizona State Sun Devils in the First Four of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at UD Arena on Wednesday in Dayton, Ohio. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Joe Robbins

DAYTON, Ohio — As the missed shots, defensive breakdowns and miscues piled up Wednesday night, one could see the toll it was taking on St. John’s just from watching Shamorie Ponds. He rolled his eyes. He glared up at the scoreboard above center court. He held his arms wide with palms up as if to say, “Why?”

The Red Storm’s star guard accomplished part of the mission in getting the program back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015. But despite his many efforts, St. John’s came up short. It fell into a deep hole early against Arizona State, threatened to get back in the game but never really did, ultimately falling short in a 74-65 First Four loss before 11,827 at University of Dayton Arena.

Ponds had 25 points on 8-for-20 shooting and four assists for the Storm in what was almost certainly his final collegiate game. He and LJ Figueroa (19 points) were the point men on the Storm’s death rattle, helping close to within seven points twice in the final 3:41 before falling.

“With this group we’ve always been down big [and] Coach [Chris Mullin] kind of compared it to the Villanova [win] when we got down big at the half and cut it back,” Ponds said, referencing the Feb. 17 victory, the last time the Storm trailed at the half before prevailing. “We did the same but we just couldn’t get over the hump .  .  . We just didn’t hit shots.”

St. John’s ends its season 21-13 and though it halted the NCAA Tournament drought it still hasn’t won a tourney game since 2000. After the big win against Villanova, it crashed, dropping six of its final eight games.

Arizona State (23-10) advances as the No. 11 seed in the West Regional and will play a 4 p.m. first-round game against No. 6 Buffalo (31-3) at BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla.

Luguentz Dort had 21 points and Zylan Cheatham had 14 points and 10 rebounds for the Sun Devils, who pulled out the win despite committing 21 turnovers.

St. John’s shot a season-worst 31.9 percent from the floor, eclipsing the 32.8 percent it made in the Big East quarterfinal loss to Marquette. It also committed 16 turnovers. Asked where things went wrong, Mullin replied “across the board.”

“We had turnovers, uncharacteristic turnovers, and then we shot what 31 percent,” he added. “It was layups, free throws. It was everything. So it was probably one of our worst games of the season overall.”

Surprisingly poor showings by senior Marvin Clark II and junior Mustapha Heron proved a drag on St. John’s. Heron had six points on 1-for-12 shooting with four turnovers. Clark went scoreless on 0-for-5 shooting with three turnovers. As he sat in the morgue-like locker room afterward, Clark had his head in his hands.

“Shamorie had it going. I wish we could have helped him out,” Clark said. “I felt like I didn’t contribute at all on the offensive end.”

During the last offseason, Ponds and Heron both considered entering the NBA Draft before deciding to return to college (with Heron transferring from Auburn). Ponds is projected as a late first-round pick or high second-rounder but declared nothing after the game; His reply to the question was “no comment.” Heron said he will consider returning for his senior season.

Mullin offered no insight on Ponds’ future but said “he’s had an incredible career, probably the best three years of any player” and that he’d “had a huge impact on the program, on the school, on New York.”

The only positives from the first half were Ponds scoring 12 and Justin Simon scoring six if his 10 points. ASU had a 16-2 run, built an 18-point bulge and led 38-25 at the half. An 8-0 burst early in the second half ended with Ponds taking a steal for a dunk to cut the margin to 40-33, but the Storm then went more than five minutes without a field goal as the Sun Devils pushed the lead back up to a dozen.

“Sometimes you start a game and you start off slow, whatever, and you find your rhythm,” Mullin said. “We never found it at all.”

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