Saturday, February 11, 2017

Red Storm athleticism and transition defense send Seton Hall to brink of bubble

Marcus LoVett drives inside on his way to game-leading 19 points as St. John's dealt a major blow to Seton Hall's NCAA Tournament hopes by defeating Pirates Saturday at Madison Square Garden. (Photo by the Asbury Park Press)

NEW YORK -- You say I cannot get there from here, baby
But I don't care where I'm going
Here's to your thin red line -- mmmm, I'm stepping over
- Van Halen, "Unchained"

If one thing is clear this season, it is that St. John's has defied convention, more times better than worse.

The 33-point demolition of Syracuse. The epic upset of Butler at Carnesecca Arena. Stealing a road win at Providence, and this afternoon, avenging a lopsided defeat to Seton Hall by possibly knocking the Pirates off the NCAA Tournament bubble.

The 78-70 victory over the reigning Big East champion Pirates was more than a body blow to the chances of back-to-back trips to the field of 68 in South Orange. It was retribution for the January 22 runaway in which Angel Delgado made Big East history with 21 points and 20 rebounds, as well as last season's game at Madison Square Garden in which the Red Storm had Seton Hall positioned exactly where they wanted them, only for Isaiah Whitehead and Derrick Gordon to take matters into their own hands and make the winning plays symbolic of championship teams.

There was none of that on the visiting bench today, however, as St. John's (12-14, 6-7 Big East) simply outplayed The Hall in a performance that closely mirrored the breakout against Marquette ten days ago. Quickness and timely takeaways were the order of the day for the Johnnies, who forced five consecutive turnovers shortly before the end of the first half, all part of a collective effort that turned 18 Pirate miscues into 30 points and kick-started an 18-3 run that bridged the end of the opening stanza with the first minutes of the second half to put the game out of reach. Seton Hall (15-9, 5-7 Big East) attempted to get back within earshot, but each time they did, the Red Storm emphatically answered in what could be described as one of their best games of the season.

As St. John's prepares for a pivotal road stretch that begins with a trek to Hinkle Fieldhouse on Wednesday to take on a Butler team that lost to Providence this afternoon, they do so with a renewed sense of confidence and a sharply rising trajectory in the middle of a Big East leaderboard that has suddenly become more crowded than the counter at New Park Pizza. Before the Bulldogs come up on the menu, we leave you with a few takeaways from what could be the precursor to a stretch run where the corner of Union and Utopia may be home to more than just a spoiler in March:

1) Not your token "getting hot at the right time" team.
This isn't a streaky St. John's bunch this season, but rather one whose talent has managed to shine through frequently en route to six conference wins one season removed from just eight victories the entire year during Chris Mullin's first go-round at the helm. The Red Storm are now in position to be the No. 5 seed in next month's Big East Tournament if the season ended today, which would give them a 2:30 p.m. tipoff on Thursday that week, and perhaps a showdown with Villanova should they emerge victorious from the quarterfinals. When prompted to opine whether or not his team could continue to be dangerous to an unsuspecting foe, Mullin had this to say:

"If we play really tough defense, smart and tough, I think we can play with just about anybody," he optimistically offered. "We've shown we can be dangerous to our opponents, and we can be dangerous to ourselves. We just have to make sure we're dangerous to our opponents more often."

2) A take-charge game off the bench for Marcus LoVett.
The redshirt freshman guard, who was a reserve last week against Villanova in what the New York Post's Zach Braziller reported was a coach's decision, was again the sixth man for the Red Storm this afternoon, and made the role reversal work to his advantage. LoVett's 19 points led all scorers, and were recorded efficiently on 7-of-12 shooting, adding six assists, five rebounds and three steals to the winning cause.

"I knew coming into this game that I was going to come off and bring that spark that we needed," he said. "I just tried to do the best I could coming off the bench and getting that spark for us, and it worked out well."

A stretch midway through the first period highlighted LoVett's seizing of the initiative. With Shamorie Ponds in early foul trouble, the other half of St. John's vaunted backcourt set the tone with 12 of his 19 before the intermission, connecting on five of his seven field goal attempts to be the first of four in double figures on the day.

"We have options on how we want to score," said LoVett. "We can shoot the three, we can attack. Coach really stressed that today. He felt like they couldn't guard us attacking, and if not, go to the hole and score the ball."

3) Impact, brought to you by Tariq Owens.
Mullin heralded his forward's effect on games even after he was held off the scoreboard against Marquette ten days ago. Today, with Darien Williams unavailable due to a sprained ankle, Owens picked up the slack and then some, posting a 10-point, 12-rebound double-double and completing the unenviable task of limiting all-Big East forward and Haggerty Award favorite Angel Delgado.

"I made a conscious decision to try to do everything I could like usual," the redshirt sophomore said of his outing, which rendered Delgado to just three points on 1-of-6 shooting in the first half. "We had a complete team effort. The guards coming down and helping to box out freed me up to go and grab more rebounds."

Owens' contributions were not limited to crashing the glass, however, as a sequence in which he blocked a shot before sprinting down the floor to throw down a transition slam that will likely end up on SportsCenter by the end of the night showcased his value on both sides.

"Tariq always has a huge impact on the game, whether he scores or not," Mullin proclaimed. "That one exchange probably changed the whole complexion of the game because of his energy and effort. He's valuable because I can start him and take him off the bench. It just adds to our flexibility."

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