|Justin Simon about to release an acrobatic shot. @StJohnsBball.
St. John's dominated DePaul on their way to an 82-74 win, and Providence beat Butler, 80-57, in the first round of the Big East Tournament on Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden.
ST. JOHN'S 82, DePAUL 74:
St. John's, the seventh seed in the tournament, came out strong against #10 DePaul in this one, as they raced out to a 16-6 lead. DePaul came right back, as they went on a 10-0 run to tie it at 16, capped by a Max Strus four-point play at the 12:25 mark.
St. John's then opened up a 25-19 lead on a Mustapha Heron three-point play at 7:27, but they couldn't build on it as they started to play sloppy. Brian Trimble missed a long NBA-length three-pointer, followed by a missed alley-oop attempt by Shamorie Ponds, and then a double-dribble for Marvin Clark II.
This was all part of an 8-2 run for DePaul, capped by Eli Cain free throws at 4:17 that tied it at 27, and that gave him 12 points at this time.
After a timeout, St. John's got into a nice rhythm, as Heron made a pair of free throws, followed by a beautiful Ponds layup as he found an opening in the lane, and then Simon drove along the baseline to draw a foul. Simon made a pair of free throws to make it 33-29 at 2:49.
Soon after, Simon was fouled on a short jumper by Strus, and as he was falling to the ground, he threw it straight up and it dropped in. He made the free throw that followed to make it 36-31 SJU with 2:10 left in the first half.
St. John's took a 39-35 lead into halftime, powered by 12 from Simon and 9 from Heron. Cain led DePaul with 16 in the opening frame.
The Red Storm opened the second half with a bang, as Simon fired a pass on the run to LJ Figueroa for an alley-oop that electirified the crowd and gave them a 41-35 lead. A few minutes later, Figueroa got a steal on an inbounds pass near halfcourt and raced down for a layup to make it 47-40. Ponds then followed with a three-pointer at 15:24 that gave the Red Storm a 10-point lead again, 50-40.
Simon showed what earned him Big East Defensive Player of the Year honors when he blocked a jumper by Strus just inside the arc at the 13:06 mark. He then chased after the ball as it went to the baseline in the other end before firing it back to Figueroa near midcourt, and it got to Clark, who missed a three-point attempt.
Ponds followed that with a three-point play to give the Red Storm a 58-46 lead with 12:32 remaining. He then hit a running jumper in the center of the lane to make it 62-48 at 11:08.
DePaul was not done, and they responded with a 9-3 run capped by a Paul Reed layup that made it 65-57 with 8:45 on the clock.
The Red Storm fought back with a big run, as Ponds drained a three, Simon had a running dunk along the baseline, and Figueroa dunked one off a miss to give them their biggest lead of the night, 15 points, 72-57, at 6:58. St. John's led by as many as 17 down the stretch.
St. John's got 18 points apiece from Ponds, Simon, and Heron to lead the way. Ponds shot a superb 7-11 from the field, including 3-4 from behind the arc, with 7 assists, 4 rebounds, and 3 steals. Simon was 7-15 from the field, with 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals, and 2 blocks. Heron shot 6-11 overall and 1-2 from long range, with 7 rebounds, 2 steals, and a block.
In addition to that trio, Figueroa had 14 points on 6-12 from the field, including 1-4 on threes, with 6 rebounds, a steal, and a block. Clark finished with 10 points (4-12 FG, 2-9 threes), with 5 rebounds, an assist, and a steal.
St. John’s Head Coach Chris Mullin said of the team’s “clean slate” mentality coming into the tournament helping them focus after losing the last three regular season games, “I felt good about that. We actually have done that. Look at some of our losses, we didn't play 40 minutes of bad basketball. It was stretches that things happen in different times of those games that affected that particular game. So I think we've done a good job.
"I always preach to these guys, and I know it sounds kind of silly, but just our daily habits. That's what it's all about. … These guys have been with me three years, they've done a really good job of not only mentally but physically taking care of their daily schedule. That's what I always tell them, you can only take care of what's in front of you. They get that text every day of their daily schedule. Stick to that, and we'll come back tomorrow and do it again. So, yeah, we made some adjustments, but to me just having the season end and coming to the Big East Tournament, my biggest message to them is to come back mentally and physically fresh. It's a new season. That should reenergize us. I thought they did a good job tonight on doing that.”
Mullin said of Simon's energy, “Obviously, being named Defensive Player of the Year yesterday, we rely on him tremendously to set the tone. I thought tonight he did that. And as important as that was having his teammates behind him. Shamorie did a great job. We had a little bit different game plan. He executed to perfection. There was a total team effort. But these two guys here set the tone for everything we do. Like most teams, the guards set the table, offensively and defensively. Tonight they led the way.”
DePaul was led by Cain, who had 23 points on 7-15 from the field, including 1-6 from behind the arc, with 5 rebounds, an assist, and a steal. Devin Gage had 19 points (9-20 FG) with 5 reounds and 2 assists, but 4 turnovers.
Strus, who had 43 points in DePaul's win over SJU on March 3, was held to just 14 points in this one on 4-12 from the field, including 2-7 on threes, with 5 rebounds and an assist.
Mullin said of shutting down Strus, “From my standpoint, it was to get Justin [Simon] in the game. I just told him last game he had seven at halftime. Justin picked up a few fouls. When he came out, the guy got going. He's that type player, it only takes a little bit for him to catch fire, and that's what happened.”
Simon added, “Like Coach said, it's a team effort. Strus is a great player. He can get hot. Just like our guys, they were extending the floor, I was running off the line just trying to make him uncomfortable. I thought it was a great team effort out there, and we played hard.”
St. John's will take on the second seed in the tournament, Marquette, whom they beat twice in the regular season, Thursday night at 7 p.m.
PROVIDENCE 80, BUTLER 57:
Providence, the eighth seed in the tournament, and #9 Butler played a pretty even first half until the Friars reeled off a 13-4 run in the final minutes, as Maliek White had a basket and three 3-pointers to provide the final 11 points of the stretch, to help them take a 38-27 lead into halftime.
Butler cut into that 11-point deficit early in the second half, as a Jordan Tucker three-pointer cut it to six, at 43-37, at the 17:07 mark
Providence responded with a 15-0 run over the next five minutes, capped by an Alpha Diallo jumper at 12:05 that made it 58-37. That lead would balloon to 26, at 71-45, on free throws from Isaiah Jackson with with 5:32 remaining.
The Bulldogs then got a pair of quick threes from Jordan Tucker and Paul Jorgenson to make it 71-51, but that was as close as they would get down the stretch as the Friars won by 23.
Providence was led by White, who had 19 point on a superb 8-11 from the field, including 3-6 from behind the arc, with 5 rebounds. Diallo had 18 points on 7-13 shooting, 2-3 on threes, with 8 rebounds and 4 assists. David Duke had 16 points on a superb 6-8 from the field (2-3 on threes), with an assist. Jackson had 13 points (3-6 FG, 3-5 threes), 5 rebounds, and 3 assists off the bench.
Butler was led by Tucker, who had 14 points (5-11 FG, 4-7 threes), with 2 assists and a rebound, off the bench. Aaron Thompson had 12 points on a perfect 5-5 shooting (1-1 on threes), with 6 assists and 4 rebounds.
Providence moves on to face top-seeded Villanova at high noon on Thursday.