Shamorie Ponds' 26 points set new career-high for uber-talented freshman as St. John's demolished Fordham. (Photo by Vincent Dusovic/St. John's University Athletics)
JAMAICA, NY -- When you have been around the game of basketball for more than half your adult life, being a fierce competitor is something that is necessary for survival both on and off the court.
When it comes to Chris Mullin, the fire burns as strong and as eternal as it did when he started his NBA career three decades ago.
Much had been made of Mullin's first season at the helm of his alma mater, St. John's, some headlines for the wrong reasons as the Red Storm meandered their way through an 8-24 season that ranked among the worst for the program since the infamous, scandal-ridden 2003-04 campaign that cost Mike Jarvis his job and began the grueling climb back to relevance in the public eye. Among the efforts that garnered attention were St. John's loss to Fordham last December, where a late-game exchange of words between Mullin and Rams head coach Jeff Neubauer sparked a subplot that was; in some ways, reminiscent of the frosty relationship between Bill Belichick and Rex Ryan in the National Football League.
One thing rang true that night at Rose Hill Gymnasium, regardless of what was said or unsaid: Losses, especially those where one team is thoroughly outplayed by the other, tend to stick in the craw of a coach who has fought to win all his life, even in battles off the court.
"When you play a team and you lose; no matter who it is or how it happens, it should bother you," Mullin said Thursday night. "I remember losses from 30 years ago. I still remember losing to Georgetown, (presumably in the 1985 Final Four, Mullin's final collegiate game) and it still pisses me off."
If Mullin was ticked, his players made sure to remind Fordham that it was the Rams who walked into the cave and poked the bear, getting their retribution in a 90-62 mauling that saw the Red Storm (5-5) beat Fordham at their own game of uptempo offense largely predicated on three-point shooting. The rout, spearheaded by a 23-5 St. John's run spanning the end of the first half and first five minutes of the second stanza, righted the ship with a third consecutive win following last week's inexcusable loss to Delaware State. Although they were the better team and were favored going in, there was the revenge factor in play as well, something that was not shied away from being mentioned.
"We knew what happened last year," said Federico Mussini, whose 20 points off the bench qualified as a much-needed revelation for a team that could use the extra backcourt scoring while Marcus LoVett continues to rehab his injured ankle. "Today was a special game for him (Mullin) too. He wanted to win the game really bad."
Mullin was proven right not only by his Italian guard, and not only by the magnum opus of Shamorie Ponds, but also by his mannerisms. Normally, Mullin is a calm general in the heat of battle, preferring to sit down and watch his troops pull out all the stops; a laissez-faire style of coaching that has garnered recurring criticism from certain writers who shall remain nameless, suggesting that it is assistant coach Greg St. Jean who holds the program together and not the Hall of Famer with the Olympic gold medals. On this night, however, Mullin was as active and enthused as ever before, coaching as if he and Tim Hardaway were running a fast break for Don Nelson in their Golden State Warrior days.
"I don't know if it does anything," Mullin said of whether he stands up or sits down, "but it seems like they stay a little more alert. It's important to be energetic and enthusiastic, but you still have to understand what's going to help you win. Tonight, we did a good job of that."
Sunday's skirmish with LIU Brooklyn at Barclays Center is the last before a weeklong hiatus for final exams, from which the Red Storm will return against Penn State in the Holiday Festival, their first appearance of the season at Madison Square Garden. Until then, we leave you with some observations from watching a team with mounds of talent put it together for 40 minutes for what might be the first time since the season opener last month:
1) Remember the name.
Most fans knew of Shamorie Ponds to begin with, as the Brooklyn native and Jefferson product was a Top 100 recruit when he signed with St. John's last year. On Thursday, the left-hander conducted arguably his greatest masterpiece, flirting with a triple-double in a career-high 26-point performance that was supplemented with nine assists and seven rebounds, not to mention four steals.
"He's way ahead of schedule," Mullin gushed of Ponds' maturation. "I always felt like he was the perfect guy for us. He wanted the big stage and he performs on the big stage. I can play him all over the court, and he knows what to do and how to make it work."
The absence of LoVett shifted Ponds to the point guard spot, where he flourished as though he had been running the Red Storm offense for years. His battles with fellow freshman Myles Powell of Seton Hall could very well be appointment viewing, first on January 22 in Newark before a reprisal at the Garden on February 11.
2) A complete game.
And probably the first true dominating effort since the 100-53 pasting of Bethune-Cookman in the season opener. Fordham led briefly after a Christian Sengfelder three-pointer two minutes into the first half, but 52 seconds later, St. John's was back in front and there to stay.
"This was our best game so far," Ponds emphatically stated. "Toughness, intensity, getting the crowd involved. We need to keep this same mentality every game."
While it may be easy for casual fans to look past LIU Brooklyn, to do so would be a great disservice. The Blackbirds possess an all-Northeast Conference talent in Jerome Frink, one who is capable of picking up the slack for a young backcourt who is even younger and thinner after the season-ending injury suffered by Joel Hernandez. St. John's can ill afford a letdown after their five-game losing streak to end November, so the mentality Ponds alluded to will need to be firmly in everyone's minds going into the home of the Brooklyn Nets.
3) Scenes from an Italian restaurant.
Federico Mussini was serving up nightmares for Fordham defenders and delicious side dishes for Red Storm fans Thursday, erupting for 20 points on 7-of-9 shooting, connecting on four of six three-pointers. Best known for his heroics against Syracuse last season, the sophomore is at a more natural position playing off the ball, and the results have become more prevalent with the influx of talent around him. The top returning scorer from last year's team, Mussini has now scored 10 or more points in four straight games, with his 20 Thursday matching a season-high first tallied in the Bethune-Cookman game. Over his last four, he is shooting a blistering 53 percent from the floor and 54 percent from beyond the arc, drastic improvements from his 34 and 30 percent clips while running the point as a rookie.
4) The team. The team. The team.
St. John's ended the game with a plus-20 rebounding margin, decimating Fordham on the glass by a 41-21 count. When fans look at the box score and see Amar Alibegovic leading the team with eight boards, there may be a stunned reaction, but this only underscores the value of cohesive team basketball. When the Johnnies are able to hold it together and remain fully engaged, this is where you see the budding talent that is often unraveled by perplexing stretches to stay focused. Furthermore, the Red Storm recorded a 75 percent assist rate, far and away a high-water mark for the year thanks to 24 helpers on 32 made field goals.