St. John’s Basketball: Johnnies edge Butler in biggest win of Chris Mullin era

St. John’s basketball followed up their 33-point drubbing of Syracuse with an upset victory over Butler at home.

St. John’sRed Storm

76

ButlerBulldogs

73

The rebuilding St. John’s Red Storm won just eight games last season in Chris Mullin’s first year as head coach. This year, it seemed like the Johnnies were headed down a similar road with a young, inexperienced team. They lost to Delaware State at home, dropped a game against LIU Brooklyn at the Barclays Center and were throttled by Penn State at Madison Square Garden.

But the Johnnies seem like they’re headed in the proper direction with their latest two game win streak.

Before Christmas break, St. John’s ran the Syracuse Orange out of the Carrier Dome. And now on Thursday night in their Big East opener, the Johnnies outplayed the 13th ranked Butler Bulldogs down the stretch to earn the biggest win of the Chris Mullin era thus far.

Shamorie Ponds and Bashir Ahmed combined to score 45 points to lead the Red Storm (7-7) to a 76-73 over the Bulldogs (11-2) in front of a sold out crowd at Carnesecca Arena.

“We came into this game with more confidence,” Ahmed said after the victory. “We just wanted to go out there and fight hard, and I feel like we did that today.”

The Johnnies shot just 25 percent from the field and turned the ball over 16 times, but the home team made clutch plays on the offensive end of the floor in the final two minutes.

Ponds kicked things off with a corner three that cut Butler’s lead down to two with 1:57 remaining. Malik Ellison stole the ball from Kethan Savage on the ensuing possession and finished with a dunk at the other end.

Then after Tyler Wideman scored a bucket for Butler, Marcus LoVett drilled a leaning mid-range shot from the wing to tie the game at 71 apiece.

And that’s when Ponds sealed the deal. Following an Ellison free throw to put the Johnnies up one, the freshman hit four clutch free bees to complete the victory.

It wasn’t just his late stretch that was impressive though: Ponds was terrific all night long. The guard shot 9-of-15 from the floor, grabbed seven rebounds and turned the ball over just two times.

He continued to play with the confidence, composure and poise of a veteran, and carried the load (along with Ahmed) with his co-star LoVett struggling.

Making the victory even more impressive was the fact that the Johnnies only had five total assists as a team and made just four threes (which has been their calling card all season long). Also, LoVett scored just 10 points, shot 2-of-7 from field and didn’t make a single three. He didn’t check into the game until the 13 minute mark in the first half and recorded just two assists.

The Johnnies were able to let Ponds and Ahmed operate in 1-on-1 situations and they played with grit, energy and toughness all night, especially on the defensive end.

Ellison was once again terrific on that end of the court, as he held Kelan Martin to 13 points on 6-of-16 shooting (1-of-7 from three). St. John’s also challenged Andrew Chrabascz (four points on 2-of-9 shooting) every time he touched the ball and Kamar Baldwin and Tyler Lewis were non-factors.

The issue with St. John’s is clearly not talent. Their problem is they’re so inexperienced that they’re still learning how to bring energy and effort on a nightly basis. The Johnnies aren’t going to make the NCAA Tournament or even finish in the upper half of the conference, but they can compete with a majority of the teams in the Big East.

“We haven’t backed our good games up consistently,” Mullin said postgame. “And that’s a direct correlation to our inexperience. I was told all the time, most people can have a good game here and there, but the really good players do it consistently. It does take experience and it does take time.”

Meanwhile, Butler had an uncharacteristic 13 turnovers and they let St. John’s shoot 54 percent from the field overall. Tyler Wideman (20 points and nine rebounds) was terrific, but they need Martin and Chrabascz, their veterans, to play better in order to win key road games in league play.

This just shows how difficult the Big East is going to be this year. No one is going to be a pushover, even St. John’s.

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