Sunday, February 4, 2018

In season of frustrating defeats, St. John's gives fans a win to savor with upset of Duke

Shamorie Ponds drives past potential No. 1 NBA Draft pick Marvin Bagley III during virtuoso second half as St. John's toppled Duke for first win since December 20. (Photo by Vincent Dusovic/St. John's University Athletics)

NEW YORK -- The city's a flood, and our love turns to rust
We're beaten and blown by the wind, trampled in dust
I'll show you a place, high on a desert plain
Where the streets have no name
- U2, "Where The Streets Have No Name"

On this Super Bowl weekend, New York has been overshadowed to a degree, caught in the middle both figuratively and geographically between Boston and Philadelphia, two cities that square off when the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles fight for the Lombardi Trophy Sunday night in Minneapolis.

But somewhere in between, the Big Apple proved it is still capable of stealing the spotlight and the hearts of its fans, and St. John's served as Exhibit A of such ability Saturday afternoon.

Defeated in eleven straight games since a win over, coincidentally, Philadelphia-based Saint Joseph's on December 20, the Red Storm came into their non-conference battle with Duke essentially playing with house money, a hiatus from a winless Big East season that reached its latest nadir this past Tuesday with an eighth loss by seven points or less in league play after their gut-wrenching 73-68 setback against Xavier. But when the St. John's fan base went into Madison Square Garden, they did so outnumbered, yet not outshined.

And the Red Storm, as they have a knack for doing in moments where most people in the know would never expect them to, gave its supporters something to savor for more than just a day, one of those defining images, a beacon of hope to offset all the adversity.

Behind Shamorie Ponds, whose latest star turn yielded 33 points and a take-charge second half not seen around these parts for quite some time, no disrespect to D'Angelo Harrison, St. John's (11-13) slayed the giant, the preseason No. 1 team in the nation and current No. 4 in the polls, the team with perhaps the next No. 1 overall pick in June's NBA Draft, the program that seems to outdo its recruiting with each passing year.

St. John's 81, Duke 77.

"What a win," Jim LaPorta, a Class of 2008 St. John's alum who graduated with yours truly a decade ago this May and was subject to the six years of stagnation under Norm Roberts. "What a game."

St. John's alumni Jim LaPorta (left) and Tom Balla (right) toast St. John's upset of Duke Saturday afternoon. (Photo by Jim LaPorta)

Indeed it was, much like the last time the Red Storm scored a takedown of the Blue Devils, on January 30, 2011. But there is a significant difference between the two. Whereas in 2011, when St. John's was a team that eventually reached the NCAA Tournament and furthered a promising season by upsetting a Duke team beset by an injury to Kyrie Irving the month before, this year's incarnation of the Red Storm will need a miracle to reach the same destination Steve Lavin took them to seven years ago. Nonetheless, much like the victory over Syracuse in Chris Mullin's first year as head coach, the scalp of an Atlantic Coast Conference heavyweight and national blueblood is a signature moment for the all-time leading scorer-turned head coach, by far his highest peak in his three years at the helm; just as it is for Ponds, the sophomore dynamo who has put his hometown program on his back in recent weeks, making believers out of cynics, earning adoration of those who have stood with him through some of the more trying nights of his career.

"We just stayed composed," Ponds stated after the game, his battle-tested Brooklyn will on full display. "We never broke or folded."

Even in the face of seven straight Duke points that restored order for the blue-and-white-clad fans who filled a majority of the Garden seats, a run that prompted many to believe the Blue Devils had capped off yet another comeback after playing with fire far longer than they should have, Ponds channeled his inner Tom Petty. The sophomore did not back down after a go-ahead layup coming off a timeout, nor did he cave in after burying a three-pointer in the corner that put the Red Storm up four, a shot that was promptly answered by a deep three from Duke's own prodigal son, Grayson Allen.

"We stayed composed," Ponds reiterated. "We've been down that road before, We didn't want to let the game slip away from us. We had a lead, they cut into it. But we stayed composed."

"Confidence," Tariq Owens proclaimed when asked what got he and his teammates through the throes of their dry spell. "No one hung their head. There was never a lack of talent, it was just mental mistakes we made coming down the stretch. At every timeout, we talked about not making mental mistakes. Our team never lost their confidence."

Neither did its largely optimistic fan base, who now has a testimonial to the struggle they have endured, and a place they can always return to amid the barren wasteland of falling short in one head-scratching way after another.

St. John's 81, Duke 77.

Savor it, for the taste is not dissipating anytime soon.

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