Shamorie Ponds proved on Monday night why he was named the Big East Conference's Preseason Player of the Year, as he poured in 32 points to lead St. John's past California, 82-79, in the Legends Classic semifinals at Barclays Center.
St. John's will face off against VCU on Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. in the championship game. VCU beat Temple 57-51 in the other semifinal game on Monday night. Temple and Cal will face off in the consolation game at 5 p.m.
Ponds scored 16 points in each half on Monday night, and his second half points came in a very unique way.
With St. John's down 65-58 with 7:06 left in the game, and he reeled off seven straight to pull them within two, at 67-65. He then poured in nine straight points to give St. John's a commanding 80-76 edge with 18 seconds remaining.
Ponds said of his performance late in the 2nd Half, “I really just found a rhythm. Coach just told me to keep going with my teammates. I just got hot and I just wanted to stay out there.”
Ponds shot 11-15 overall, including 2-6 on three-pointers, with 5 assists and 2 rebounds, in his best game of the young season. His 32 points tonight are a season high and a nice bounceback from Friday night at Rutgers, when he scored just 8 points, but he did have 6 assists in their 84-65 win.
Ponds, a Brooklyn native, said of getting a win in his home borough, “It feels good. The crowd got us into it late in the game, so it feels good to be home. It definitely feels good to get a win at home.”
St. John's Head Coach Chris Mullin said of Ponds' performance, “Shamorie obviously can score the ball, everyone knows that. He’s a high-level passer. Tonight, he had to score, so he did. He made some beautiful passes. Last game, other guys were going and he kept us lined up and played as unselfish of a game I’ve seen him play since he’s been with us and was very effective. He’s the type of player that doesn’t have to score to influence the game, but when he needs to, everyone knows he can. His playmaking is special. [Shamorie] and Justin set the tone for us, they always do, and some nights they look unsung, but they rebound, they push the break, they run out plays, they’re unselfish, so both of those guys do a good job.”
Ponds got in going early, as St. John's had to overcome an early deficit. He keyed a 12-0 run, in which he scored eight points, late in the first half, to give them a 32-25 lead with 3:00 left, an d then hit a three in the closing seconds to give them a 38-31 lead at intermission.
St. John's kept it going in the second half, as a Marvin Clark II three-pointer gave them a 46-39 lead a few minutes in.
Cal came back and took a 56-52 lead on a Matt Bradley three with 9:34 left, and then led 65-58 on Connor Vanover free throws with 7:06 remaining.
Justin Simon gave St. John's the lead back, 69-68, with a layup with 3:52 left, and Cal regained the lead a minute later on an Andre Kelly layup that made it 72-71.
That would be Cal's last lead, as Ponds was fouled on St. John's ensuing possession and got to the free throw line.
Ponds drained a couple of free throws to start his game-defining streak of nine straight points to seal the win for the 4-0 Red Storm.
In addition to Ponds, St. John's got big performances from Mustapha Heron, who had 13 points (5-10 FG), 4 assists, and 2 rebounds; LJ Figueroa, with 12 points (4-5 FG, 2-3 threes), 3 rebounds, and 2 assists; and Marvin Clark II, who had 10 points, 8 rebounds, 2 blocks, and a steal.
Cal was led by Darius McNeill, who had 21 points on 8-16 from the field, 5-10 on three-pointers, 1 rebound, and 1 assist; Justice Sueing, with 19 points (5-10 FG, 1-3 threes), 9 rebounds, 2 steals, and 1 block; and Paris Austin, who had 17 points (7-11 FG, 1-3 threes), 4 assists, and 3 rebounds.
Each team shot exceptionally well from the field, as St. John's shot 54.7 percent (29-53) for the game, while Cal shot 56.9 percent (29-51). Each team made eight three-pointers, with St. John's taking 21 attempts from behind the arc to 18 for Cal.
Mullin said of the game, “We got back on our heels a little bit because they were scoring and they got confident, but I was happy with the way we regrouped and got the win. When there was about four minutes left we talked about being in this position before and we’re going to be in it again, so let’s go out and make the plays we need to win, and Shamorie [Ponds] caught fire. … I thought Marvin [Clark II] struggled a bit during the game, but he came up with some big rebounds and made some free throws...
“I think them scoring at such a high rate and shooting such a high percentage really dictated the tempo of the game. For them to sit back in zone and score like they did really kept us out of a rhythm, and we were fortunate that Shamorie found his own rhythm. He made some tough, tough shots. If you look at the stats, they’re virtually identical. They really are, and we made three more free throws. That’s really what it comes down to. That’s a pretty unique game, but that experience showed out. Our guys had the confidence they could win it and they went out and made the plays to do it.”
Mullin said of the chance for St. John's to win a title Tuesday night, “First and foremost, we have to get some rest. ... It’s nice to play in a high-stakes game this early in the season against a good team, so we’ll be jacked up.“