Resentment about the way its game against Xavier was being called had been building for some time Thursday night. St. John’s players and coaches, as well as a sellout crowd of 5,602 at Carnesecca Arena, showed their displeasure. Finally it spilled over.
Shamorie Ponds drove the lane and didn’t draw a whistle when the defense collapsed on him and the ball went flying. At that point, the Musketeers had taken 14 more free throws and Ponds couldn’t tolerate this perceived slight. His wild gesticulations led to a technical foul call, and coach Chris Mullin’s displeasure drew another.
The moment was the lowlight of an 84-73 Big East loss that dropped St. John’s (20-9, 8-8) into a third-place tie. The Red Storm fell into a 12-point first-half deficit as they got pushed around by the more physical Musketeers; by the time they started to rally late, St. John’s found the terrain too steep.
The Red Storm are tied with Xavier (16-13, 8-8), which has won five in a row, and are a half-game ahead of Seton Hall.
Marvin Clark II was asked about St. John’s playing the better teams well and the unheralded teams poorly.
“We have to lock in and get better,” he said. “We’re playing for seeding in the [Big East] Tournament. It’s one game you’re promised. After that, you choose your fate. We’ve got to realize that either we have to lock in or we put in all this work for nothing. That means we play one game and get sent home. We have to find a way to string some things together.”
LJ Figueroa scored 23 points, and Ponds had 13 points and six assists for St. John’s. Naji Marshall scored 31 for Xavier, which took 33 free throws to St. John’s five.
Asked about the crowd’s reaction to the officiating, Mullin said, “It’s self-explanatory.”
St. John’s was without Mustapha Heron, sidelined by knee tendinitis for the second straight game and the third time in six contests. Mullin said he remains “day-to-day.”
The 6-5 junior and second-leading scorer wasn’t the only thing missing from the equation. The Red Storm brought very little intensity and passion to meet Xavier’s physicality. St. John’s only lead of the first half was 2-0, and it trailed 38-30 at the break.
“They put the imprint on the game — physicality. That was pretty much it,” Mullin said. “They took it to us physically, dictated the tempo of the game, slowed the game down. We never got two or three or four good possessions in a row.”
The Red Storm got within 58-55 but never any closer. The technicals were called with 4:09 left, and Marshall made two of the four free throws for a 73-59 lead.
“We know what we have to do to win a game like this,” Mullin said, “and it’s not what happened tonight.”