Friday, December 30, 2016

St. John's knocks off No. 13 Butler behind sellout Carnesecca crowd

Shamorie Ponds defied even his own lofty standards yet again, scoring career-best 26 points as St. John's posted upset over Butler in Big East opener. (Photo by Vincent Dusovic/St. John's University Athletics)

JAMAICA, NY -- I'm falling even more in love with you
Letting go of all I've held on to
I'm standing here until you make me move
I'm hanging by a moment here with you
- Lifehouse, "Hanging By a Moment"

It's somewhat fitting that I use the chorus of a 2000 alt-rock song to open this column tonight, a column that might get a little personal along the way.

And after the latest uptick in a roller-coaster season, St. John's fans might want to savor this one just a little longer and enjoy the ride for a couple of days before the calendar flips to 2017 and the Red Storm finds themselves on the floor against DePaul Sunday afternoon.

Thursday wasn't just any token December game, it was the Big East opener for a team entering off the highest of highs, a 33-point obliteration of former conference rival Syracuse at the Carrier Dome eight days prior. Invading the corner of Union and Utopia on this night were the Butler Bulldogs, one-time mid-major darlings under the great Brad Stevens before moving up the ladder; across three conferences in as many years at one point before finally landing in the Big East, and coming into this matchup ranked thirteenth in the country with victories against the likes of Arizona, Cincinnati, and Indiana inscribed onto their ledger.

Okay, highly regarded opponent? Check. Sellout Carnesecca Arena crowd?

Wait, what?!?!?!

No, you heard that right, a capacity crowd on campus for a late December game squarely in the middle of the winter break. The attendance and atmosphere will not, and cannot, be overstated enough, for it was the single biggest factor in St. John's (7-7, 1-0 Big East) getting back to .500 and scoring a rather sizable upset over Butler in a 76-73 affair that sent all 5,602 in the stands home with something to talk about; good, bad, or indifferent.

A first half in which the Red Storm pushed their opponent was to be expected, after all, Carnesecca is not for everybody. Let us not forget the rock fights against Seton Hall in the Bobby Gonzalez era, where the offensively gifted Pirates always had a hard time stringing baskets together for some reason. The bandbox effect contributed to the 38-all score after 20 minutes, yet it seemed as though Butler (11-2, 0-1 Big East) found their way through the abyss when a 61-51 lead was held by the Indianapolis faithful with 10:34 to play in regulation.

Two runs by St. John's, feeding off their home court advantage more than usual, keyed the comeback. An 11-4 stretch initiated by a pair of Shamorie Ponds free throws (we'll get to him again later, because once again, his presence was impossible to ignore) culminated in four straight points from Marcus LoVett to cut the deficit to three points five minutes later. Then, after Butler got back up by five on the next trip down the floor following the LoVett jumper, a 10-4 spurt saw the Johnnies regain the lead on the first of two free throws by Malik Ellison before Ponds iced it with four foul shots of his own, each one bringing those in the stands to a louder crescendo. But in typical Red Storm fashion, it wasn't over until the final buzzer, and as a Kelan Martin three-quarter court three for the tie did its best Gordon Hayward impression, (cue Jim Nantz screaming "IT ALMOST WENT IN!") it was only then that those wearing red and white could truly exhale.

With DePaul and a trip to the Allstate Arena (I'm still trying to break myself from calling it the Rosemont Horizon, because I'm old and things like that happen) on deck, we'll bring down the curtain on 2016 with some observations from an absolutely magical night in Queens. Believe me, and those of you who know me well can attest to this, I rarely ever use this kind of hyperbole when dealing with the alma mater, so you know it had to be special for me to go there. Here we go:

1) The crowd.
This is where it gets personal for a bit, as I prefaced in the open. I have been affiliated with St. John's basketball for ten seasons now, and in that decade, I had NEVER seen Carnesecca Arena get up for a game the way it did Thursday night. Before this game, maybe Providence in February 2008 (anyone remember the immortal Weyinmi Efejuku missing two free throws with :00.1 left on the clock to give St. John's a 64-62 win to keep their Big East Tournament hopes alive, you know, back when four teams actually did not qualify to go to the Garden?) held the title of "most juice at Carnesecca," but it was easily eclipsed before the opening tip. Credit goes to athletic marketing for getting the word out, but most of all, credit the student sections for being packed during the Christmas break. When I would call games solo on WSJU and Reginald Bazile would produce in the studio, anything over 2,000 counted as a good turnout. The old barn was loud from the get-go, it only got louder as the game went on, and there was no sign of it dying out at any point.

LoVett even went as far as to leave the huddle at the under-4 timeout in the second half to go out to half court and raise his arms to exhort the faithful in what had been a 67-64 game with 3:45 to go at that juncture. The extra effort, from everyone, paid off.

"First of all, I want to credit the crowd," Ponds remarked in the postgame press conference. "They were amazing. If it wasn't for them, we wouldn't have won this game. They just helped us a lot."

Wednesday night's meeting with undefeated Creighton, a Top 10 team heading into a pivotal clash with reigning national champion Villanova, may have the same intensity in the stands. The Bluejays will be better equipped to handle it thanks to their 18,000-strong turnouts at CenturyLink Center in Omaha, but even they will have their hands full with an environment Chris Mullin deemed "nice to see."

"It was good that our guys came through and gave them something to cheer about," said Mullin of a game and subsequent emotional investment that turned the clock back to the 1980s heyday that is now described as halcyon days for the program. "I keep saying that it's waiting to blow up. We hung in there and played through some tough times, so I'm happy for them. We've got to keep that going and sell this place out every night."

2) Shamorie Ponds happened, again.
The Brooklyn guard's stat lines just keep outdoing themselves as the year goes on, and Thursday was certainly no different after the dust settled on a career-high 26 points on 9-of-15 shooting, a production complemented by seven rebounds and plays so gutsy and beyond his tender age that when you look at the final numbers and see that St. John's won while recording only five assists, it only stands out even further.

"He's a really phenomenal player," Mullin gushed. "He doesn't show a lot of emotion, but he's a fierce competitor. Sometimes he's so good and so calm that you forget he's just a freshman. I really thought that he played well."

Butler head coach Chris Holtmann was equally as effusive in his praise of the rookie wunderkind.

"I think they're both terrific," he said, also including LoVett. "They get their own shot, they're dynamic with the ball, they're outstanding players, both of them. They're a load, they're a handful, and I think they're going to be that way for a number of years."

3) A different game plan.
Earlier in the season, the Red Storm were content to take a bevy of three-point shots, and seemed to settle for some in the first half against Butler. To their credit, though, Mullin got his players to take smarter shots throughout the night and draw the Bulldogs into ill-advised attempts, and even ESPN's Jeff Goodman; a frequent critic of the Red Storm over the past two seasons, took notice.

"We haven't really backed up our good games consistently," Mullin admitted as St. John's followed up their emphatic rout of Syracuse. "That's a direct correlation to our experience. Someone asked me last week why I'm optimistic, and it's because I know they're working towards that."

"That definitely gave us confidence," said Bashir Ahmed of the Syracuse effort, which he built on with 19 points. "We just wanted to go out there and fight hard, and I felt like we did that today."

4) You can't hit the snooze button anymore.
In the wake of what was St. John's most significant on-campus victory since defeating; oddly enough, Syracuse, (in 1983, back when Mullin was a sophomore; as passed along by friend of the site and my former WSJU broadcast partner/co-host, David Berov, and later confirmed by St. John's athletic communications) Ahmed offered a candid introspective assessment of where his team stands entering the conference season:

"This is what we've been waiting for," he said. "I feel like a lot of people are sleeping on us, you feel me? It's time to wake them up."

Although Ahmed's comments were not a targeted shot at their newly vanquished opponent, there was a brutally honest sense of not having done enough to combat the Red Storm from the Butler end.

"I just thought we had kind of an immature approach to the game," Holtmann lamented. "We did not provide nearly enough resistance for them, and they made some plays. When that happens, this is what happens."

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