Thursday, February 8, 2018

St. John's reaps rewards for struggle in upset of No. 1 Villanova

Shamorie Ponds silences Wells Fargo Center crowd as St. John's scores biggest win in program history since magical 1984-85 season by upsetting top-ranked Villanova. (Photo by Newsday)

Ridin' high, I got tears in my eyes
You know you got to go through hell before you get to heaven
- Steve Miller, "Jet Airliner"

If such a thing as college basketball purgatory exists, St. John's was paying rent in such a locale for the past five weeks.

Defeat after demoralizing defeat, near-miss after heartbreaking near-miss, lost opportunity after squandered lost opportunity, the Red Storm soldiered on; bent, yet not broken, a testament to the battle-forged steel will of head coach Chris Mullin and a group of young players perhaps not equipped to handle such hefty doses of adversity, yet wise enough beyond their years to manage the struggle.

"We're not playing for each other," Marvin Clark II boldly stated after a 91-74 setback at the hands of DePaul on January 6, the de facto lowest point of the season for St. John's considering what was expected to be a runaway victory over the perennial doormat of the Big East turned into a 17-point rout on their own Carnesecca Arena floor.

More losses soon followed, with Mullin notoriously proclaiming that the skeptics among his alma mater's fan base would have to bury him before he threw in the towel on the three-year rebuilding process he has shepherded to this point, that defiant show of competitive fire having come in the wake of a five-point loss to Creighton on January 23.

Then came what seemed to be a turning point of sorts, when Xavier came to Carnesecca for a second meeting with the Johnnies one week later, but after a 67-all tie late in the game, the mental lapses that Tariq Owens cited as grounds for the chronic failures reared their collective ugly head over the final four minutes of regulation and allowed the Musketeers to escape Queens with a victory and prompting an honest reflection from the man in charge of it all, one questioned by the same fan base that has spent the past three decades idolizing him as to whether he did indeed have everything under control.

"I wouldn't say it's easy," Mullin opined when asked about maintaining a positive mindset in the locker room. "I think it's important that we deal with it together, and do it openly and honestly. When we get to the other side, we'll look back and be proud of ourselves."

If one win was all it took, then Saturday's triumph over a fourth-ranked Duke team that began the season as the consensus preseason No. 1 in the nation should have served as a convincing enough statement. And it did, for most, but other criticism still lingered.

That wasn't a Big East game, some cynics wondered. You beat Duke, but how will that translate against Villanova? Against Seton Hall?

Wednesday night's result in Philadelphia put that to rest once and for all.

St. John's 79, No. 1 Villanova 75.

No misprint, either. For the first time since January 26, 1985 -- midway through Mullin's senior year -- when Looie and Big John were the main players in the Big East's marquee rivalry, the denizens of Union and Utopia were able to lay claim to slaying the nation's largest giant, the top-ranked team in all the land. And despite the sense of doubt, those who step inside the ropes and are at the forefront of battle sensed the breakthrough.

"We've known who we are the whole season," Clark said Wednesday while the majority of the country was still processing the final score, trying to let it marinate even briefly. "It's just a learning process. It's been a redundant learning process, but I think the guys want to salvage something out of this season. We know we're not out of it yet."

"Even through our losses, we always stick together," Shamorie Ponds added, with the latest chapter in his ever-growing legend having included 26 points in a complete, 40-minute, start-to-finish effort that the budding star from Brooklyn took charge of in much the same vein Dwight Hardy did in the Red Storm's last win in the City of Brotherly Love seven years ago. "We all felt like a team. I don't think anyone here is 'me, me, me.' It's a 'we' thing here. It's either us or no one. We've never lost the confidence," said Ponds. "No one wants to go through the losing. If we stayed together, (we knew) it would eventually fall through."

And so it goes heading back home to Carnesecca, where a throng of well-wishers actually greeted the team bus upon arrival early Thursday morning. Heading into Saturday's matinee against Marquette, there is a buzz on campus once again, and even if the overall bottom line may not suggest it, the attention is certainly well-deserved.

"It's big for the university and it's also big for us," Ponds said of St. John's dispatching two Top 5 programs back-to-back for, believe it or not, the first time in program history. "I feel like it'll give us the little spark that we need going into the rest of the season. Two huge wins."

Two huge wins that have changed the perception of the season. Two huge wins that prove getting to the promised land, even if just passing through, can be arduous in its process; but ultimately, two huge wins that yield a fruitful; and meritorious, payoff for a team so thirsty to acquire one.

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