Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Johnnies turn back clock with old-school Big East tourney win over Hoyas

Aftermath of second half fracas that defined St. John's Big East tournament-opening win over Georgetown, one that felt like it was pulled straight from 1980s heyday. (Photo by Josh Adams/College Hoops Digest)

NEW YORK -- And everything looks so complete, when you're walkin' out on the street
And the wind that catches your feet, sends you flyin' -- cryin'
Ooo -- ooo-wee
Wild night is callin'
- Van Morrison, "Wild Night"

The 2013 defections of Syracuse and Pittsburgh changed the Big East as we know it forevermore, but while conference realignments can take the juice out of the rivalries, no one can ever take the rivalries out of the combatants.

So it was Wednesday night, when St. John's and Georgetown, forever linked by their classic 1980s epics; through Looie and Big John, Mullin and Ewing, Sealy and Mourning, Lopez and Iverson, squared off once again inside venerable Madison Square Garden, the stage on which many of their classic stories were told.

In previewing his own team's prospects for this year's 10-team congregation earlier this week, Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard spoke of the Garden like a divine spirit. 

"It talks to you," was his reply.

Well, with 8:35 remaining in regulation, the ghosts of the Garden approached the Red Storm and Hoyas, and not only did each oblige, they added a new chapter to their rich tapestry with one another.

In a 59-55 game after a Shamorie Ponds dunk reinvigorated a largely pro-Johnnies crowd, tension flared when Amar Alibegovic fouled Georgetown's L.J. Peak on his way to the rim. What happened next was an entirely different story.

Shortly thereafter, Alibegovic was shoved into the second row of the stands by Bradley Hayes, launching a bench-clearing fracas and Red Storm head coach Chris Mullin's sprint down the floor to check on his fallen forward. Alibegovic was assessed a flagrant-1 foul, with both Mullin and Hoya assistant coach Patrick Ewing, Jr. receiving offsetting technicals.

WATCH: Aftermath of St. John's-Georgetown fracas (footage courtesy of Russell Steinberg, SB Nation)

"I just went out there to see what was going on," said Mullin, giving his side of the story. "I saw Amar go into the stands and I wanted to make sure he was okay. Everything else was nothing, it was really nothing going on. In a close game like that, both teams know if they lose, their season's over, I think it was just really competitive juices flowing."

In what now ranks as one of the highlights of his two-year tenure behind the bench at his alma mater, Mullin garnered the support of his players, who appreciated his selfless and staunch defense.

"It's good to know when things get heated and we're going to go to battle, he's right there with us," Tariq Owens told the New York Post's Zach Braziller.

When asked what may have escalated the situation when Mullin approached Ewing, Jr. and the Georgetown bench, the Olympic gold medalist had this to say:

"I asked if he was gonna beat me up like his father did," he quipped, generating laughter from the media gathered at his postgame press conference.

With that out of the way, there was still the matter of sorting out who would emerge victorious from a conference tournament game, with reigning national champion Villanova waiting in the wings for a quarterfinal matchup against whomever came out with the upper hand Wednesday. In the end, it was St. John's (14-18) who did just that, holding a lead they gained from a 6-0 run to end the first half and never trailing after that, defeating the Hoyas (14-18) by the final of 74-73 after a valiant Georgetown effort on the game's final possession came up empty.

WATCH: Georgetown's last possession (footage courtesy of Jaden Daly, Daly Dose of Hoops)

With the win, St. John's earned its first Big East Tournament win since 2011, when the Red Storm won another controversial game, holding off Rutgers on the infamous gaffe by officials Jim Burr and Tim Higgins, who did not review Justin Brownlee stepping out of bounds and throwing the ball in the air with 1.7 seconds remaining in regulation. Nonetheless, it is the Johnnies who advance, and before they get a third look at Villanova, we leave you with some takeaways from the action that got lost in the shuffle of the second-half scrum:

1) Good Bashir showed up, as did Malik Ellison.
The junior forward has had a Jekyll and Hyde complex for most of the season, but was the best thing going for the Red Storm through their first half struggles and an early 18-9 deficit. Ahmed scored 10 of his 14 points in the opening stanza, giving him a double-figure scoring night for the 15th time in his last 16 games. Ellison provided a very well-rounded effort in the winning cause, contributing 11 points, eight rebounds, six assists and three steals to a triumph the team wanted to bring home for their coach in the heat of battle.

"We were very aware of the rivalry," he admitted. When Coach Mullin was playing, they were very physical and very competitive. We just came out here and we really fought for him, and we just got the victory."

2) Did the coaches get the vote wrong?
When word got out that Creighton's Justin Patton was named Big East Freshman of the Year, the initial reaction centered on Shamorie Ponds being egregiously snubbed, possibly because he and teammate Marcus LoVett could have split the vote and essentially canceled each other out. Ponds left no doubt of what he was capable of, though, scoring a team-leading 17 points in his conference tournament debut.

"I just want to win at the end of the day," he said, unfazed by not winning the award. "It's a good accolade, but I just want to win. It is what it is."

The battle on the court, though, produced a much different, and more palatable, reaction from the precocious rookie.

"It was amazing," said Ponds. "The crowd, everything was amazing. I think this is the best tournament in the country. I love games like that, when the crowd is going and both teams are playing physical. I live for moments like that."

3) State of the Hoyas address:
The affairs on the Hilltop have become a hot-button topic since columns from ESPN's Jeff Goodman and Georgetown-centric site Casual Hoya delved further into a program that has now suffered back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since the 1970s, and has not won consecutive games in a tournament of ANY kind; conference, NIT, or NCAA, in 21 straight games. Athletic director Lee Reed will eventually have a very tough decision to make concerning the job security of John Thompson III, and risk losing the support of longtime boosters who have been affiliated with the program since Thompson's father; who recently had the Hoyas' athletic complex named in his honor, was patrolling the sidelines for the once-proud national power. But when prompted to assess the state of a program many feel to be in both decline and need of a change, JTIII was unwilling to acquiesce.

"After a loss like that, right now, I don't think it's the time to do that," he tersely and brusquely said, sidestepping the discussion.

The reporter who asked the question would not cede so easily, though, asking the logical follow-up: If not now, when?

"I'm not sure," was the embattled coach's response. "Later on; tonight, tomorrow, I don't know when. I'm worried about the group that's in there (the locker room) right now, how they're feeling. Right now, we have a group of kids that played hard. They gave themselves for each other, for their institution, and they're hurting right now. That's my concern at this second."

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