Justin Patton outmuscled St. John's en route to career-high 25 points as Creighton overpowered Red Storm at Carnesecca Arena. (Photo by Steven Ryan/Newsday)
JAMAICA, NY -- I've started out, for God knows where
I guess I'll know when I get there
I'm learning to fly, around the clouds
What goes up, must come down
- Tom Petty, "Learning To Fly"
Not every game is going to produce the sheer drama and adrenaline rush of upsetting a nationally-ranked opponent in your on-campus arena. But in every loss, there lie moments that can be used as an impetus to improve.
Look no further than St. John's latest effort Wednesday night, an 85-72 setback at the hands of the tenth-ranked Creighton Bluejays at Carnesecca Arena. Although the score was much closer than the game let on, as Creighton (14-1, 2-1 Big East) led wire-to-wire after Maurice Watson's lob pass was emphatically slammed through by Marcus Foster for the game's first points. While the Bluejays stretched their advantage to as many as 24 points, the Red Storm showed the same fight that defined last year's eight-win outfit, a resilient and scrappy style that will serve this group well as Big East play heats up. In fact, it has already paid dividends for the Johnnies, who followed up an abysmal nine minutes against Penn State; the 35-5 run that defined a Holiday Festival loss which left fans on the corner of Union and Utopia understandably catatonic, with impressive victories against Syracuse and Butler before extending the mini-streak with a businesslike win over DePaul on New Year's Day.
And how much has St. John's earned respect in the heat of battle? Consider this quote from Greg McDermott, whose Creighton team had no easy opening pair of games to their league ledger by having to host reigning Big East champion Seton Hall and reigning national champion Villanova:
"I was scared to death of this game," McDermott stated. "Anybody that watched the Syracuse game was scared, because that was a heck of a performance. You can see the young guys grow up as you watch them on film."
In a stark 180-degree contrast from this point a year ago, where St. John's (8-8, 2-1 Big East) represented an extremely favorable set of circumstances on paper for whomever was on the bench across the court, the Red Storm are no longer the token lower-echelon team in the Big East. Chris Mullin's team has become the sleeping giant, if you will, a unit that still found a way to impress even while being handled for the majority of the night. Credit Marcus LoVett and Shamorie Ponds for that, as the backcourt duo combined for 40 of St. John's 72 points, the latter drawing additional accolades in a tour de force of a rookie season.
"We recruited Shamorie, and his development has been incredible," McDermott said of Ponds. "We just weren't sure how quickly he could do it in the Big East, but he's doing it pretty well for a young player."
For all the talk of Ponds maturing ahead of schedule, the same could be said of Justin Patton.
The seven-foot redshirt freshman, who got the better of Angel Delgado last week in Creighton's Big East opener, has been nothing short of a revelation in every possible facet. Entering Wednesday's contest shooting an eye-popping 74 percent from the floor and missing only 28 of the 109 shots he had taken thus far, the homegrown Omaha native backed up his efficiency in authoritative force, recording a career-high 25 points on 11-of-14 shooting and fortifying his total with nine rebounds and four assists to lead the way in a commanding 52-24 disparity in points in the paint.
"Justin's best basketball is still ahead of him," said McDermott. "As good as he was offensively in the first half, he was equally as good defensively. That wasn't the case the first five or six games of the season."
The impression he left on St. John's was far more indelible.
"He's a big dude," LoVett casually admitted. "He has multiple moves, and we didn't have an answer for him. He's a great player."
"He reminds me of Marcus Camby, especially tonight," said Mullin, taking the praise a step further by comparing Patton to the former No. 2 overall NBA Draft pick. "He has great hands and even banged a three. He looked All-NBA."