By Kevin Sweeney
By all accounts, it has been a successful non-conference slate for St. John’s. The Red Storm were off to a 9-2 start with some quality wins. Still, they had one more test to pass before entering Big East play, and they did so today, knocking off St. Joe’s 77-73. Shamorie Ponds led all scorers with 28 points, while Justin Simon flirted with a triple-double with 11 points, 11 rebounds, and 9 assists.
Facing a talented St. Joe’s team that has dealt with injuries early in the 2017-18 campaign, the Red Storm got all they could handle from the Hawks from the opening tip. It was a tight game throughout, with neither team ever able to claim a double digit advantage. While the Red Storm have been one of the best defensive teams in the country on the young season, the Hawks were able to find flow on offense from the get-go.
But when it mattered most, the Red Storm were able to find a way to string together stops on the defensive end. They held the Hawks to just 5 points in the final 4:59, with 2 of those coming on a meaningless lay-in by Newkirk with 3 seconds to go.
“That’s what coach has been preaching every game,” Simon said. “We won it down the stretch.”
Coming down the stretch of the first half, it seemed that St. John’s had all the momentum, regaining the lead after trailing for much of the first half to go into halftime with a 44-41 advantage. But the Hawks came out firing in the second half, with Shavar Newkirk posting 17 second-half points en route to 26 on the game and Taylor Funk finding his stroke from 3 to take a lead that would stretch to as much as 8. But the Johnnies had the answer, fighting back behind some big buckets from Ponds and locking in on defense late.
Simon and Ponds each played all 40 minutes, as St. John’s used just 7 players with Marcus LoVett injured. Bashir Ahmed added 16 points, and Tariq Owens provided a nice boost with 7 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 blocks.
St. Joe’s falls to 5-6 on the season, but there were plenty of encouraging signs in this one. Newkirk had his best game of the season as he continues to recover from a knee injury he suffered last season. Pierfrancesco Oliva posted 18 rebounds in the losing effort for the Hawks.
“We’ve shown our most improvement on the defensive end,” said Chris Mullin as he summed up his team’s non-conference slate. He said the team will have a few days off before refocusing for a matchup to open Big East play against Providence on December 28.