St. John’s got its first “measuring stick” game on Thursday night and stood tall.
After cruising past New Orleans and Central Connecticut — a pair of teams from one-bid conferences — the Red Storm met Nebraska of the Big Ten and rose to the occasion. St. John’s grabbed an early lead, built it up before halftime, pulled away in the second half and punctuated a 79-56 victory with a series of acrobatic dunks before 4,652 at Carnesecca Arena.
The joint was rocking as the Red Storm sealed it with three highlight-reel dunks: a Shamorie Ponds-to-Bashir Ahmed alley-oop, Ponds throwing an assist off the backboard for Justin Simon’s stuff and Simon making a steal for a breakaway slam.
The Cornhuskers may not rank among the elite in their conference, but they have the kind of size and physicality that St. John’s must handle in order to be successful in the Big East and return to the national conversation for the first time since 2015.
The Storm didn’t have its usual dynamic offensive game but handled it impressively with superior quickness and athleticism producing a great performance on defense and on the boards. St. John’s held Nebraska to 28 percent shooting and had a 50-39 rebounding advantage.
Coach Chris Mullin saw it as a potential breakthrough. “We know what we have to do. Tonight they believe it more [because of] their actions,” he said. “I don’t know if we win a game like this last year the way we shot — I don’t know if our defense was at that level. I’m not quite sure it was there a week ago. You can drill, but they have to prove it to themselves. Playing in a close game, your coach can tell you all he wants, but you make that free throw and it proves it to yourself.”
The impact was immediate. Asked about the way St. John’s won the boards, guard Marcus LoVett replied, “Teams are going to have to prepare for us — we can do that. They are going to have to keep watching out for us to rebound because we know we can do that now.”
Ponds had 22 points, seven rebounds and five assists. Ahmed scored 15 points, LoVett had 14 and Simon had 13 points and 12 rebounds for the Storm (3-0). Tariq Owens added six points, nine rebounds and six blocks in 24 minutes off the bench.
James Palmer Jr. scored 13 for Nebraska (2-1).
Ponds and Ahmed had four each in a 12-2 burst for a 62-43 lead near the midway point of the second half. The dunkfest came in the last 3:08. “If they play defense with energy . . . then I think you’ll see offensively some high-level stuff,” Mullin said.
But the thing he hopes stays with his group is how they played great team defense.
“Tonight was the first time I felt like they knew what they were doing,” he said. “We drilled them, talked about it . . . but they looked like they were on a string together. It’s the best defense I’ve seen.”