Sunday, February 26, 2017

MSG crowd, Ponds' 24 aid Red Storm in taking down Hoyas

Shamorie Ponds' 24 points not only led all scorers, but included two late free throws to help put St. John's over the top against Georgetown in next-to-last regular season home game. (Photo by Newsday)

NEW YORK -- Though I cannot forget from where it is that I come from, I cannot forget the people who love me
Yeah, I can be myself here in this small town, and the people let me be just what I wanna be
- John Mellencamp, "Small Town"

Madison Square Garden, and even Carnesecca Arena, take on the feel of exclusive suburban communities on game days. You have the hometown faithful, a great majority of whom live and die with their native team, and those just passing through. Ideally, the more intimate your surroundings are, the stronger the bond; and, in the case of St. John's, the more committed they are to defending their little slice of paradise.

An announced crowd of 11,277 patrons were able to bear witness to and engage in that small-town pride Saturday afternoon, cheering their Johnnies at every turn, even after giving up a 17-0 run to offset the exact same spurt they uncorked in the first half to establish a 14-point lead that soon wilted faster than a lettuce leaf in the desert. But the Red Storm (13-16, 7-9 Big East) regrouped, not letting visiting Georgetown (14-15, 5-11 Big East) take the lead in the second half, and dug deep when the Hoyas pulled within one on several occasions, producing an 86-80 victory as the end result.

"We've got a lot more confidence," Shamorie Ponds assessed when justifying the disparity between St. John's brilliance at home versus their struggles on the road through a season that has remained positive and upbeat following last year's eight-win slog. "The fans are rooting for us. Them on our side, it just boosts our confidence a lot."

If there is one thing the St. John's fan base possesses in droves, it is passion, and an intense one that gets largely overlooked in a market that boasts nine professional sports franchises among its own. But both old and new guard alike has been reunited again in Chris Mullin's return to his alma mater and quest to return the program to the status in which he left it over three decades ago, and the second-year coach referenced their role in a similar vein to how Ponds did just minutes before when facing the media.

"I think these guys feed off the crowd for sure," he confirmed. "I think they're very comfortable playing here now, which wasn't always the case. I thought our first few games here, they were not, but now they are."

St. John's has one more road game, coming next week at Omaha's CenturyLink Center against Creighton, but before they take to the air for the final time this season, we wrap up a couple of the prevailing narratives from the matinee at the Garden:

1) This is officially Shamorie Ponds' team.
Not that there needed to be any official declaration, but Ponds was trusted to win the game after Georgetown drew within a 78-77 margin in the final 80 seconds of regulation. The rookie sensation calmly hit two free throws after drawing a foul, beginning an 8-3 run to close the game.

"When the team believes in you, they want you to do what you do," Ponds said of the level of faith placed in his ability. "I believe I was built for the moment."

"He's been pretty amazing all year long," Mullin surmised, "so good that if you watched him, you would forget that he's a freshman. Early on, he exceeded my expectations, and has been consistent; maybe even better, as the season has gone along. We've got confidence in him, he's got confidence in himself and more importantly, his teammates has confidence in him. He's as dangerous scoring as he is making the pass."

In addition to the flair for the dramatic and the take-charge mentality, Ponds' 24 points pushed him over the 500-point plateau for the year, something only two other players in St. John's history accomplished in their freshman campaigns. At 502 markers on the year, he surpassed Erick Barkley for second on the single-season freshman scoring list, and is only 42 away from tying D'Angelo Harrison for the top spot. With at least three games in which to rewrite the record books, one of which is the Red Storm's Big East Tournament opener, Ponds is a safe bet to add to his milestone collection despite not paying it much attention.

2) Federico Mussini reaffirmed his X-factor status off the bench.
We've made mention of just how much more lethal Mussini has been as a reserve, particularly having been freed up to play off the ball this season with the emergence of Ponds and Marcus LoVett to direct the St. John's offense. And with those two handling the initiative for the Red Storm, Mussini was able to get his own feel for the game when he came in, and turned in a 16-point day on 5-of-6 shooting and three three-pointers to prove that he can still be a potent option in Mullin's arsenal without the heavy workload that he rode to being the leading scorer for last year's 8-24 outfit.

"I know I need to bring energy every night and do the best I can for the bench, especially on defense," said Mussini. "My teammates did good finding me tonight, so that's what I've got to do, just bring energy and get the team together."

"He's as valuable, minus the minutes," Mullin imparted. "One thing we had to do last year was have him on the ball all the time, which wasn't even fair. He understands that with Marcus and Shamorie and Malik, (Ellison) these guys can create shots for him. That's really his strength, but he's a consummate teammate."

3) Can the familiarity with MSG spark a Big East Tournament run?
Mullin spoke of how St. John's has become comfortable playing at the Garden, and as a veteran of the conference tournament atmosphere, he understands better than anyone just how vital the crowd component can be. Add the fact that St. John's has won three straight contests on their home floor to the mix, and you have a formidable upset special in the making.

"People can say what they want," said Mullin of the marked contrast between home and road performance for his team. "There is a transition between playing anywhere and Madison Square Garden, but for us, it's more important because we play so many games here. I think everyone is really comfortable playing here, and that's a big advantage for us."

Of the Big East Tournament, the Hall of Famer had this to say:

"It's a special time," he stated, waxing somewhat nostalgic in the process. "I've played in it, I scouted. It's one of the best tournaments to come see, it takes up the electricity another notch. Games at the Garden are big anyway, but that week where everyone's in one place, it's really cool times. It's a lot of fun."

4) What a difference a year makes.
It doesn't seem to be getting the attention it should, but St. John's is one win away from matching last season's overall win total in Big East play alone, an uptick attributed to not only the added talent level on the corner of Union and Utopia, but also the patient and incremental progress under Mullin's watch. Some are quick to criticize his unique approach to coaching for better or worse, but improvement is still improvement, and a six-win turnaround in league play over one of the more daunting conference slates speaks for itself. As far as the team's overall maturation, its young leader chalked up the enhanced results to a cultivated cohesiveness.

"At the beginning of the year, everybody would just go their separate ways," Ponds recollected. "As the games go by further and further, even through wins and losses, I just feel like we're coming together as a team. We're more like a unit now."

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