St. John’s got a statement win early in this young season as they routed Nebraska, 79-56, on Thursday night in The Gavitt Tipoff Games at Carnesecca Arena.
The Red Storm improved to 3-0 for the second time in three years. The Huskers suffered their first loss of the year and dropped to 2-1.
Shamorie Ponds eclipsed the 20-point mark for the second-straight contest, netting a season-high 22 points on 8-17 from the field to go along with seven rebounds, five assists, two steals and just one turnover in 33 minutes.
Ponds said of this win, “I feel like this game was a big test for us. It was our toughest game so far. It tested our heart, our defense and our communication; we really needed this win.”
Bashir Ahmed had a solid night with 15 points on 6-13 shoting and 2-4 on threes, with five rebounds. Marcus LoVett scored 14 points (6-14 FG, 1-4 threes), three rebounds, and three assists.
Justin Simon recorded his second double-double in as many tries, tallying 13 points (6-11 FG, 1-1 threes) and 12 rebounds, all of which came on the defensive glass, to go along with a game-high four steals. Simon set new career highs in all three of the aforementioned categories against the Huskers.
Tariq Owens proved a force to be reckoned with inside, grabbing nine rebounds and tying a career-high with six blocks in addition to six points.
Marvin Clark II added seven points and five boards while Kassoum Yakwe chipped in five rebounds and a block in 15 minutes of action.
Led by Simon and Owens, the Johnnies controlled the glass, grabbing 50 rebounds in a contest for the first time since last year’s Gavitt Tipoff Games at Minnesota.
As a team, the Red Storm dominated the Huskers inside, scoring 44 points in the paint to the Nebraska’s 16. The Johnnies also took care of the ball on Thursday, surrendering just nine turnovers.
Trailing 5-2 after a 1-for-6 start from the floor, the Red Storm scored the game’s next nine points to take an 11-5 lead with just over five minutes gone in the contest.
The Red Storm extended its run as high as 15-3, moving ahead by nine, 17-8, on an acrobatic layup from Ponds with 11:36 to play in the first half.
Led by Ponds, the Johnnies continued to press their case, as the sophomore from Brooklyn scored six unanswered to make it 32-20 in favor of the Red Storm at the final media timeout of the opening period.
Despite scoring only five points over the half’s closing four minutes, the Red Storm defense locked down and held the Huskers to just four points, as the Johnnies entered the locker room with a 37-24 advantage.
After missing its first attempt of the second stanza, the Red Storm converted on six straight, including three tries from downtown, to keep the Huskers at bay.
Leading by 13, 56-43, with just over 13 minutes to go in the second half, LoVett kicked off a sequence that saw the Red Storm score six unanswered and take a 19-point edge less than a minute later. Aside from his bucket, LoVett’s intensity on the defensive end of the floor brought the Carnesecca faithful to their feet and set the tone for the rest of the run.
From that point, the Red Storm occupied the driver’s seat for the remainder of the game, punctuating the victory with a trio of highlight reel dunks from Ahmed and Simon in the waning minutes of the win.
St. John’s Head Coach Chris Mullin said of their overall performance on Thursday night, “This was our biggest test to date on this early season, and it was definitely going to pose some huge challenges…particularly on things that we haven’t done well in game situations, which are rebounding and defensive play. We did a good job on both, but I think the most important thing is that tonight was really the first time that I saw our defensive alertness, quickness, and athleticism really showed. I think part of it is just gaining confidence in each other. We’ve done okay in certain areas, but I think there has always been a reluctance to shrink the floor and help in the paint because they are worried about their guy, but tonight showed that we can be in help defense and recover because we are athletic and long enough to do that. I thought we played great defense, we rebounded the ball, and I thought we played so hard on defense that we almost looked a little jittery on offense. We really didn’t get into a groove offensively, but our effort was tremendous.”
Mullin said of their rebounding effort, “It has been an emphasis all summer…it’s something that cost us games last year. A lot of times I don’t think it was due to lack of effort. Sometimes it’s technique and sometimes, as a coach I really hate to say this, but sometimes it’s just a bad bounce. I do think that when you play better half-court defense, you are aligned the right way, and people are know where you are and where you are supposed to be….you are more accountable. With that, you can carve space out…tonight was the best we’ve done that, and that’s two things that we work on every single day. We really don’t want to work on it every day, but we have to. We work on our half-court defense and we work on our rebounding every single day. We will continue to do that because that’s something we need to do. I think our offense will come around, but if play defense and rebound…we are going to be in good shape.”
On the athleticism of St. John’s, Mullin said, “Tonight is the first night I saw it on both sides of the ball. I’ve seen it in spurts on offense…guys make tremendous plays. I’ve also seen it in spurts, individually, defensively. When we do it all together, especially on the defensive end, when you are covering ground…even when you make a mistake, you can cover up if we are playing with energy. I think you’ll see more high-level stuff offensively because we share the ball so well. We have such a nice blend of talent. Each guy has strengths that can cover-up another player’s weakness. It’s a nice, little blend. I told them coming into the game tonight…when you play a big team, which I have done a lot over the course of my career, the two things you have to do are rebound and play with pace because that’s your advantage. You have to put that imprint on the game. When they try to bury you in the post and throw a sloppy pass, you have to come up with all of those balls and you will win the game. I thought our activity on defense made the difference.”
Mullin said of the play of Tariq Owens on the defensive end, “Tariq is one of our most-important players. The only reason I take him off the bench is because he can play any position. It doesn’t matter if someone gets hurt or gets into foul trouble, he can go in and our lineup is fine. He’s the anchor of our defense. His blocks are great because he’s in the right place…he’s not drifting away, he’s always in the help position and communicating. He does it all. To me, he makes everything go. He’s also such a freak athletically…he can do almost everything.”
On readiness of team following the big win over Nebraska, Mullin said, “We can only play the game that we play. I thought tonight was a big challenge and a big test…I thought we did a good job. We have a lot of tough games coming up. We know what we have to do as a team, but I think tonight they believed it more with their actions. I don’t know if we win a game like this last year. We didn’t shoot the ball that well, so I don’t know if last year our defense was at that level. I’m not even sure if it was even there a week ago. They have to prove it to themselves by playing in a close game. Your coach can tell you all you want about confidence, but you have to prove it to yourself…and that’s way more important than any drill, pep talk, or anything a coach can give you.Tonight was really the first time I felt like they knew what they were doing. We drilled it, talked about it, and shown film about it and tonight, for them, it fell together. Since I’ve been here, that’s the best defense I’ve seen us play.”
Mullin said of St. John’s keeping the foot on the gas throughout the entire game, “We talked about that at halftime. I thought we came out, especially at the start of the half, we gave up an offensive rebound, got a stop, but then gave up an offensive put-back…we regrouped though and got back on track. We’ve had enough experiences like that to fall back on, but more importantly, we’re really trying to train ourselves so it’s not reacting to anything…rather we are just flowing back into our training. We’ve been through this before, you’ve trained yourself, and you just get back to center. It’s okay to get screwed up a little bit, but sometimes a timeout or a free throw allows for you to just get back to center. That takes experience. These guys have been around for a year-or-so, and it’s starting to come around.”
LoVett said of the team’s performance, “It changes a lot for us personally. What we did in this game is what we have been practicing all summer to get to this point. We executed even though we made mistakes at times, we picked each other up and kept communicating and listening to our coaches, that’s how we came away with a victory.”
On the environment of Carnesecca Arena in this big win, LoVett said, “We knew coming into this game it was going to be a big one for our whole team and we wanted to come out with a lot of energy and I feel like we started and finished the game like that, but we have to appreciate our fans, they gave so much energy out there. To see the whole atmosphere of Carnesecca Arena it was beautiful to be in that environment and we plan on having more games like that.”
Ponds said of the expectations moving forward, “Every game we play helps to build up our confidence, every little step we take gives us belief in our minds. I feel that as the games go on even through losses, it is going to build us up and help make us stronger.”
Nebraska Head Coach Tim Miles said of his team moving forward, “The only good thing about basketball tonight is that we get the chance to strap it on again in three days. Sometimes you don’t like the taste of your own blood, when you are out in elements like this you have to be tough as nails. We didn’t rise to the occasion tonight and that’s disappointing, but it’s early in the year we have a lot of improvement ahead of us and I look forward to getting to it as soon as we can. ”