(The handshake line after quite a battle – Photo by Jason Schott)
The Xavier Musketeers, who are ranked sixth in the nation, survived a big effort from St. John’s, as they eked out a 73-68 win on Tuesday night at Carnesecca Arena.
This was a big bounce-back for St. John’s after they lost at Butler, 70-45 on Saturday, but they are still winless in the Big East at 0-11, and are now 10-13 overall. They host Duke on Saturday at Madison Square Garden.
St. John’s started off strong, and got the crowd into it as they jumped out to a 14-8 lead in the opening minutes capped by Bashir Ahmed layup.
Xavier responded with a 15-3 run capped by a Quentin Godwin jumper at 8:55 of the first half, and took a 37-32 lead into the half.
Xavier maintained that edge in the opening minutes of the second half, 41-36, but St. John’s stormed back with a 9-2 run capped by a Shamorie Ponds layup off a Marvin Clark II steal at the 15:43 mark.
St. John’s kept it going, and led 55-51 on a Ponds jumper at 7:45.
Xavier came right back with a 10-1 run capped by Kerem Kanter free throws with 5:51 left that made it 61-56.
St. John’s was within two, 63-61 when they got a break. Justin Simon was about to put up a layup before he got fouled by Trevor Bluiett. Since it appeared he didn’t get the shot off, it should have been a 1-and-1, but instead the referees did ruled that it was in the act of shooting and gave Simon two free throws. Simon, a 65 percent free throw shooter, proceeded to miss both of them.
That was not it for the Johnnies, as they tied it at 67 on a Marvin Clark II three with 2:12 left, and he followed that up with a steal to give them a chance to take the lead with 1:45 left.
St. John’s called a timeout with 24 seconds on the shot clock, and they came out of that with a play that would be run a lot later in the game.
Ponds stood for about 15 seconds at the top of the key before passing to Clark next to him at the perimeter, and he got it to Bashir Ahmed, who could not get a shot off as the shot clock hit zero.
Bluiett got to the line with 1:04 left, and made both of his free throws to make it 69-67 Xavier. He then fouled Ahmed, and he missed one of two at the line with 42 seconds left.
St. John’s missed four of six free throws down the stretch, and were 10-16 from the line for the game.
Xavier took time on their ensuing possession, and Kanter put up a layup that appeared to be blocked by Tariq Owens. Instead, Owens was called for a goaltending that awarded the basket to Kanter and made it 71-68 Xavier.
This was a tough call as the ball was barely out of Kanter’s hands before Owens swatted it away. Normally, on a goaltend, the ball has to be going down. That was not at all possible on that play.
Owens then proceeded to turn it over with 11 seconds left, and Bluiett made a couple free throws with seven seconds on the clock to make it 73-68 and seal the win.
It is remarkable that St. John’s seems to get sloppy in the final two minutes, possibly because losing all these close games has gotten in their heads.
Ponds led the way for St. John’s with 31 points on 12-20 from the field, 3-7 on threes, with six steals, five assists and five rebounds. Clark had 19 points (6-15 FG, 4-9 threes), seven rebounds, three steals, and two assists. Ahmed had 12 points on 5-11 from the field, including a three, with 10 rebounds to give him a double-double, along with an assist and a steal.
Xavier was led by Bluiett, who had 14 points (4-16 FG, 1-9 threes, 5-6 FT), four rebounds, and three assists. Kanter and Godwin had 13 points each.
Ponds said of St. John’s falling to 0-11 in the Big East, “I don’t think we can believe it, but I mean there’s nothing we can do about it. We just have to go into each and every game knowing we can win. Even with our record, we have to take it one game at a time and try to break the ice. We have Duke on Saturday and we have to try to get it done at the Garden.”
Mullin said of whether it’s hard to believe that St. John’s is 0-11 in the Big East, “Yeah. … They know that they’re right there. There’s no disputing that. It’s not up for debate. Again, tonight two possessions. That’s exactly what we’re dealing with. That’s where we’re at.”
Ponds said of handling the emotional recent games, “We are just trying to stay positive and have the right mindset. Day in and day out there is nothing else to hold our head about, so we just have to stay positive.”
Mullin said of keeping the team’s spirit up, “I wouldn’t say it’s easy. It’s job number one though. I wouldn’t say it’s easy, but it’s the way that we conduct ourselves through wins and losses. That’s consistent. To me, it’s really important right now, it has been this last month, that the way we handle this is the most important thing. … I think they have done a good job with that process, but it’s something that I take very seriously because I think it’s important. They understand all the good things that they are doing, that they feel good about themselves, and last time I was here we talked about losing basketball games in this fashion and not being losers. Being consistent with your effort, being accountable with your actions, all of us, and I think when you do that, you learn a lot about yourself. I think they are all valuable lessons. Doesn’t make it easy at all, but this is what we are dealing with now. 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 will look back and be proud of ourselves. I’m proud of the way they are playing. It’s just about getting that W, and that’s what we are going to keep working towards.”
On if there’s a common denominator in all the losses, Mullin said, “There’s been different things on each night. Minus three of those games, ironically it’s a five-point differential. I don’t think that means anything, but the one thing I would say is that we’ve had a hard time having five guys going [in the same game]. Like tonight, we had three guys going and our margin of error is pretty low. We’ve had a hard time having four or five guys click on the same night. We played seven guys tonight, so our margin of error is pretty small.”
Mullin said of the offense possibly becoming too reliant on Ponds, “We distribute the ball-handling duties to Justin [Simon] quite a bit, and most of the time what we’re doing is collapsing the defense and looking for options. Marvin [Clark II] got great looks tonight, Bashir [Ahmed] came back after having a tough first half with fouls, so stuff is out there. I thought tonight we got a little stagnant. I didn’t think that Justin was as aggressive as he was last time we played [Xavier], Tariq [Owens] was in foul trouble, and if you were going to say that Tariq and Justin were going to combine for three points, I wouldn’t think that it would be a close game. There are reasons for our foul trouble, but if you look back on certain nights we haven’t had five guys clicking. If you told me that Tariq was going to have zero and Justin only three, I didn’t think we’d be in the game. That’s a plus, but also somewhat puzzling.”
Clark said of St. John’s coming up just short, “Of course it’s disappointing because we want to win, but I’m not disappointed, we played very hard and it’s as well as a game we can play against them defensively. … It’s tough to lose, but we have to keep our heads high against the No. 6 team in the country.”
On handling the emotional recent games, Clark said, “Just hanging in there and trying to continue being a family. We are in this together and the only way we are going to overcome it is together. We are just hanging in there being tough and trying to persevere. At the end of the day everything I’ve been through win, lose or draw I always think back what I’ve been through in my life and put into perspective.”
Clark said of his message to the rest of the players after the game, “I just told the guys keep our heads up. When the game ends the way it did or as hard as we fought for those 40 minutes against the No. 6 team in the country all we can do is walk away with our heads high. … I told them at the end of the game it was something that we could control and that was free throws. We missed a few of those and if we have made a few of those we keep that lead. Overall, I told them keep their heads up and stay positive.”
Xavier Head Coach Chris Mack said of the game, “Life in the Big East. Tough team, I know [St. John’s] record doesn’t show that, and I know that they are going through some things, but a tough matchup for us. We didn’t play particularly well, but I thought that St. John’s had a lot to do with that. They hit you with quickness on both ends of the floor. We lost way too many possessions through turnovers that result in Ponds, Simon, or whoever going the other way for two points. Give St. John’s credit, they pressured us and turned us over. I thought in the end, Kerem [Kanter] made two huge plays. We knew it would be a tough game, and we didn’t have inkling that it wasn’t going to be a tough game. We expected that coming in. We had a couple of plays that could have broken it to eight or nine in our advantage, but St. John’s fought and made some great plays.”
Mack said of St. John’s, “You sort of throw last Saturday’s game at Butler out the window. We knew that we would face a much-better test than they gave Butler. You look at when [St. John’s] played Villanova, that tough game against Georgetown where the kid throws in a 3-pointer, and not to mention their best playmaker [Marcus LoVett] goes out for the rest of the year. They’re going to beat some teams, and I’m just glad that we don’t have to play them a third time during the regular season because it very well could be us. That might be the best 0-11 team I’ve ever seen anywhere in a conference period.”
PONDS GETS 1,000TH POINT:
St. John’s sophomore point guard Shamorie Ponds recorded his 1,000th career point with a layup at the 11:23 mark of the second half. That basket gave St. John’s a 53-50 lead at the time.
Marvin Clark II said of playing with Ponds, “He’s one of the best players that I have ever played with and it’s great playing with him for me as a shooter. He draws a lot of attention and I get a lot of open shots. He’s an unselfish player, great playmaker, we are both lefties and it’s been great playing with him, I enjoy it night in and night out.”