Monday, January 16, 2017

St. John's rebounds with win over DePaul in Carnesecca season finale

Malik Ellison put finishing touches on career-high 23 points with late dunk in St. John's second win over DePaul, ending three-game losing streak for Red Storm. (Photo by Newsday)

JAMAICA, NY -- You might stop a hurricane, you might stop the driving rain
You might have a dozen other guys, but if you wanna stop me, baby -- don't even try
- Bryan Adams, "Can't Stop This Thing We Started"

After the dust settled on a career-high 23-point performance, Malik Ellison was the embodiment of the aforementioned 1991 No. 1 hit, as his production led all scorers in St. John's 78-68 victory over DePaul at Carnesecca Arena Monday evening.

The sophomore made his presence known from the start, knocking down a pair of three-pointers in the first 61 seconds to establish an uptempo beginning for the Red Storm (9-11, 3-4 Big East) in their return to the familiar on-campus confines they had not seen since a January 4 loss to Creighton. And coming in on the heels of dropping four straight games to the likes of not only the Bluejays and Georgetown immediately following, but fellow Big East penthouse occupants Xavier and Villanova, the right tone made all the difference against a Blue Demons team that gave St. John's all it could handle on New Year's Day in Chicago, narrowly missing out on an upset as the Johnnies improved to 2-0 in league play at the time with a 79-73 triumph.

The middle leg of the annual FS1 marathon slate, which was preceded by a resilient Creighton win on the road at Xavier, was one where St. John's had things their way essentially all day after Ellison's first triple gave the Red Storm a 3-2 lead. DePaul (8-11, 1-5 Big East) fought back to tie, to their credit, but an 11-0 run for the home team to close the first half ended up being the turning point of the contest and something head coach Dave Leitao attributed to a recurring habit that eventually needs to be broken.

"That created a mountain that we had to climb through," the laconic and introspective Leitao, now in the second season of his second stint at the helm of the Blue Demons, admitted. "We've done that before, but you can't live like that. You have to manage the moments throughout the course of a 40-minute game, and I thought St. John's did a better job than we did tonight."

"The last four minutes of the first half were huge," Chris Mullin reaffirmed. "I thought it was all about the defense. On the last possession, we went to a zone and they did a good job getting out, and Federico (Mussini) made a big three at the end of the half. Overall, our defense was good."

DePaul would get within six points midway through the second half, but bookend trifectas from Shamorie Ponds to sandwich a Brandon Cyrus layup put St. John's back up double digits, allowing the Red Storm to conserve enough in the tank to close out the final game at Carnesecca with their sixth win in eight tries on the corner of Union and Utopia.

St. John's gets six days to rest and begin the spring semester before their next contest, a Sunday afternoon matinee at the Prudential Center against a reeling Seton Hall team that will no doubt be amped up and looking to turn their fortunes around in their first act since a winless three-game road trip. Until then, we leave you with some observations from tonight's affair, one that put the Red Storm one step closer to the top half of the standings:

1) Strictly business, and stuck to the game plan.
That would be the best description of St. John's effort, one in which they knew what was ahead of them coming off a four-game skid.

"We really needed this one," said Ellison, who finished with a 7-of-10 shooting night, making five of six attempts from beyond the arc and crediting his teammates all the while for "a lot of open looks" that he knocked down. "Especially this week, we needed to come into this last game at Carnesecca with a lot of energy and fight. That's what we did today, and we got the victory."

2) A statement was made in that the top two don't always need to carry the load.
Ponds finished with 14 points, but only scored three in the first half, while Marcus LoVett managed just three points total. LoVett apparently made several trips to the bench over the course of the game, but Mullin insisted he was fine when asked about a potential health issue. Regardless, finding a way to win a game that last year's group may not have been able to do at this point in the season qualifies as an encouraging sign of maturity, especially when the St. John's offense has been compromised at times when Ponds and/or LoVett do not light up the scoreboard.

"This was a great team effort," Ellison stated. "When your leading scorers aren't on and other guys step up, it's big for the team. It was good for us as a team. We had 18 assists (on 25 field goals, good for a 72 percent assist rate). Everybody was sharing today."

3) Home court advantage at the on-campus bandbox.
When Carnesecca fills up and comes to life, it can wreak havoc on an opposing team, with Butler serving as Exhibit A for the first time in a long time in the minds of Johnnies aficionados. And with a 6-2 record on their true home floor, it appears as though the magic of the past has been recaptured.

"I always try and share the history of this university and the basketball program," said Mullin, the all-time leading scorer and Class of 1985 alumnus who remains a deity to anyone who follows St. John's. The one thing I really liked this year is that I thought we played really well here. We had some really great crowds, and I think they're more comfortable playing in this building."

"It means a lot to play here," Tariq Owens, who finished one rebound shy of a double-double with ten points to accompany nine boards, said. "There's a lot of history here. I know we play at the Garden and there's a lot of history there as well, but this place is small, and it gets rowdy when you can really get the fans into it."

4) Looking ahead to Seton Hall:
At 12-7 and 2-4 in Big East play, the reigning conference champion Pirates will come into Sunday's contest on a three-game slide of their own, having been swept in a road trip against Marquette, Providence and Villanova, culminating the swing on the short end of a 76-46 drubbing at The Pavilion by Jay Wright's Wildcats. Regardless, the specter of Angel Delgado potentially feasting against a thin Red Storm front line is something that Seton Hall could ride to victory, and even in what is perceived as a crossroads in South Orange, both coach and players are projecting positive thoughts.

"Our confidence is great," head coach Kevin Willard stated reassuringly. "We know what we can do."

"We told the guys what kind of league this is," said Khadeen Carrington, the Pirates' leading scorer. "It only takes one win to get you back on track. Everybody in the locker room has a positive attitude."

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