Trailing by 16 with just over 16 minutes to play in the game, it looked to some as if the St. John’s men’s basketball team was heading towards its first loss of the season. Someone forgot to tell the Johnnies, as the Red Storm charged back and defeated Georgia Tech, 76-73, at AmericanAirlines Arena on Saturday afternoon.
The Red Storm is now 7-0 for the first time since 1994-95. Only two St. John’s teams have recorded better starts since Chris Mullin last played a game for the Johnnies, as the 1990-91 and 1986-87 squads won each of their first nine tilts.
Shamorie Ponds played the part of hero once again for St. John’s on Saturday afternoon, scoring 21 of his season-high 37 points in the second half and keying a Red Storm run that saw the Johnnies outscore Georgia Tech 45-26 over the game’s final 16:37. The junior from Brooklyn made 10 of his 17 shots from the floor, four of his seven attempts from long distance and 13 of his 15 tries from the charity stripe. He also grabbed five boards and recorded three steals in 37 minutes of action. Ponds, who eclipsed the 30-point mark for the ninth time in his St. John’s career, has now scored 33 or more in three of his last four outings.
Justin Simon netted 11 of his season-high 13 points in the second half and pulled down a team-best seven rebounds. The 6-foot-5 guard from Temecula, Calif., played a crucial role in sparking the Red Storm’s comeback, scoring all 11 of his second-half points in the span of six and a half minutes and helping the Johnnies get back within single digits.
LJ Figueroa also added 13 points for the Red Storm while Mustapha Heron chipped in eight points and six rebounds.
As they often do, the Johnnies dominated the turnover battle against the Yellow Jackets (4-3), forcing 16 Georgia Tech miscues while coughing up a season-low five possessions of their own.
The Red Storm came out of the gate firing, converting on its first four field goal attempts and jumping ahead by six, 14-8, following a Figueroa bucket with seven minutes gone in the contest.
Leading by eight, 20-12, the Johnnies saw Georgia Tech rattle off five-straight to pull within three with just over eight minutes to go. Figueroa and Ponds responded with layups on back-to-back possessions, bumping the Red Storm lead to seven, 24-17, and forcing a Georgia Tech timeout.
From there, the Johnnies went cold and Georgia Tech found it tough to miss. The Yellow Jackets rattled off 16 unanswered, moving ahead by nine, 33-24, with just over two minutes to go in the half. Following two free throws from Ponds to snap the skid, Georgia Tech scored the game’s next five and took its largest lead of the half, 38-26, with 37 seconds to go.
After 12-straight misses and more than seven minutes without a bucket, Ponds heaved up a prayer from the other side of half court with time expiring. The long-distance try was nothing but net and the Johnnies entered the locker room trailing by nine. Overall, St. John’s missed 17 of its final 20 field goal attempts in the first half.
The Yellow Jackets made their first four shots of the second half, moving ahead by 16 with just over three minutes gone in the period.
Facing its largest deficit of the game, St. John’s slowly started to chip away. Simon recorded six points on a 9-2 Red Storm run, pulling the Johnnies back within single digits, 53-44, with 12:17 to play.
After a three-point play by Moses Wright put Georgia Tech back on top by 12, the Johnnies rattled off six unanswered to make it 56-50 just past the midway point of the period. The deficit was the Red Storm’s smallest since the 3:35 mark of the first half.
After whittling the Yellow Jacket advantage down to as little as three, 63-60, following a basket interference call on a Mikey Dixon jumper, the Johnnies saw Georgia Tech make three unanswered and move back ahead by six with 4:43 to go.
In the ensuing two minutes of game action, Ponds scored nine-straight points. After two free throws, he drained a three-ball from the left wing to bring the Johnnies within one. Following a stop on the defensive end, Ponds earned a pair of chances from the free throw line and sank both, giving the Johnnies the lead for the first time in more than 23 minutes of game time. Ponds then collected the rebound on a Jose Alvarado miss before sinking an off-balance jumper on the other end, capping his personal 9-0 run and putting the Johnnies on top by three, 69-66, with 2:36 to play. The Red Storm wasn’t done yet, coming up with a steal before Simon and Figueroa connected on a rim-rocking alley-oop. Following nearly two minutes without a bucket from either side, two Ponds free throws capped a 13-0 run for St. John’s, as the Red Storm moved ahead by seven, 73-66, with just 26 seconds to play.
Georgia Tech managed to trim that advantage to one in the closing seconds of the game, but Ponds’ final two free throws of the night followed by an off-target heave from Alvarado allowed the Johnnies to seal their 76-73 victory.
The Red Storm returns to action at Carnesecca Arena on Wednesday night, playing host to Mount St. Mary’s. Tip-off is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on FS2 and 970 AM WNYM.
St. John’s Head Coach Chris Mullin…
On how the comeback win defines his team:
“We talk about adversity all of the time. When things go your way, you just go with the flow. When things get funky, it’s important for our guys to rely on each other. We talked about that when we were down 16. Strategically, you may change a thing or two but as a team, you have to take it one possession at a time and play good defense. Momentum flipped their way at the end of the first half, we were tentative on defense and they shot 60% to close out the half. Our defensive stops really changed the game. We maintained our defensive posture and ran the open floor well on offense.”
On their press defense:
“Our press has been solid. You have to give Georgia Tech a lot of credit. They ran that clock down and they played off the dribble. They played a solid 30 minutes of basketball, both offensively and defensively. At any level, any time you give another team confidence, they’ll give you a tough game every time.”
On the team’s defense in the second half:
“We started the game like that. We took away their first, second, and third options. When the shot clocks goes under ten seconds, it’s about playing good one-on-one defense. We have good one-on-one defenders but they’re not going to get stops every time. We did a better job contesting and getting rebounds in the second half.”
On the advantage of playing neutral-site games early in the season:
“We get something out of every practice and film session. Games like this will come back to help us. When you have a situation like this to come back from a 16-point deficit, our guys did a great job regrouping and they all stepped up when they needed to. When you look back on it later in the season, I think it will be very valuable for our guys.”
Junior guard Shamorie Ponds…
On the comeback win:
“I think we got off to a great start but then at the end of the half, they punched us in the mouth. We just had to respond.”
On the team’s early struggles:
“I don’t think the zone gave us trouble. They definitely played great in zone. We were relaxed, the ball wasn’t moving and it hurt us.”
On overcoming a 16-point deficit:
“It’s a brotherhood. From game one, we’ve played well together, even if we were down big. Staying together has been a big key for us.”
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