Shamorie Ponds strode past center court Saturday afternoon, thrust his fists toward the ground and his head toward the sky, and let out a holler. It had been more than six weeks since St. John’s won a game, and one could almost see the weight of 11 consecutive losses coming off the star guard’s shoulders as he screamed.
The Red Storm finally broke out, and did it with gusto. St. John’s stunned fourth-ranked Duke, 81-77, before a sellout crowd of 19,812 at the Garden and a national network television audience.
The Storm hadn’t won since Dec. 20 and had found just about every agonizing way to lose — by five points three times, by three points once and once in double overtime — but St. John’s finally got a day in the sun.
“To come out on top feels much better, but we have been right there,” coach Chris Mullin said. “It’s good for those guys to get that feeling. Nothing like a win to make you feel better and understand how close you are and what you need to do to win.
“Thank God January is over.”
Ponds had 33 points, Tariq Owens had 17 and the two totaled all nine of St. John’s points in the final 1:17, keeping the Red Storm out front through precarious moments. Ponds made the biggest shot, a three-pointer with the shot clock expiring that gave St. John’s a four-point lead with 38 seconds left.
“We just stayed composed. We didn’t break or fold,” he said. “We were just trying to break the ice. Today we did it . . . We’ve been in the role before. We didn’t want to let the game slip away from us.”
After trailing Duke (19-4) by as many as 10 points en route to finishing the first half down 39-32, St. John’s (11-13) opened the second half with a 12-2 run. Ponds hit a three-pointer for the Storm’s first lead at 42-41 and then found Owens for an alley-oop that got the Garden rocking.
Bashir Ahmed (19 points) had nine key points on two three-pointers and a three-point play as the Red Storm’s lead grew to 11 on three occasions, the last at 68-57 on Owens’ drive with 6:36 left.
“[Mullin] made the emphasis that they were up at the half and we just had to come out and make a statement and set a tone in the first four minutes of the second half,” Owens said. “I feel we did. Our team as a whole collectively hit them in the mouth and we knocked them off balance and we kept our foot down.”
Gary Trent Jr.’s two free throws with 1:35 left capped a 16-4 burst that gave Duke a 73-72 lead, but Ponds answered with a gliding lefty layup in traffic.
Duke had a chance to get the lead back with 1:08 to play when Marvin Clark II fouled Trevon Duval, but the freshman missed both free throws.
On the ensuing possession, after Owens had a shot blocked, Mullin called timeout with five seconds left on the shot clock and drew up the play for the three-pointer by Ponds.
“It was probably the biggest play of the game — no question,” Mullin said. “It’s one of our plays for baseline out of bounds. I thought we ran it to perfection. We set some good screens and Shamorie moved sharply to go away and come back. It was the biggest shot of the night.”
The Storm needed all of the four-point lead it provided when Grayson Allen answered with a three-pointer. Owens and Ponds shot 4-for-6 from the free-throw line down the stretch to hold on.
Justin Simon had seven assists for St. John’s. Trent had 22 points, Marvin Bagley III added 19 and Wendell Carter Jr. had 14 points and 15 rebounds for the Blue Devils.
Duke coach Mike Krzy zewski said his team did not look past St. John’s, but he was very critical of his team’s play.
“They made us look bad, but we made ourselves look bad,” he said. “We did not play basketball the first 32 minutes worthy of our program. We had blank faces. We didn’t talk. We were like five individuals out there. It was disgusting, really.”
St. John’s will face its third top 10 team in a row Wednesday at No. 1 Villanova. But as Mullin said, at least “they’ve got that taste back in their mouths.”
“To turn it around against one of the most storied programs in college basketball is great,” he added. “We would have taken it anywhere. We would have taken it in an empty gym.”