By John Fanta
NEW YORK — There was a buzz inside Madison Square Garden unlike any buzz around St. John’s Basketball in quite some time, and certainly the Chris Mullin Era. For the first time since 2012, a sellout crowd of 19,812 would be on hand for a St. John’s regular season game.
Twelve minutes in on Sunday, it looked like that would mean nothing. It looked like another letdown at The Garden, what would be a third straight Big East loss at MSG and a missed opportunity. There would not be any real harm for St. John’s NCAA Tournament hopes in losing to Villanova, but it would be another missed opportunity.
And yet, in the very same game that St. John’s fell behind by 19 to the reigning national champions, the Red Storm put on display why they belong in the NCAA Tournament field. Crazy, right?
Putting up their largest comeback win since March of 2010, the Johnnies locked down Villanova defensively and earned their first home win over the Wildcats since 2002, 71-65.
It wasn’t the heroics of Shamorie Ponds on Sunday or the wild highlight plays that this group is capable of which led them to the rally. Rather, it was elite defense — the Red Storm held the Wildcats to just 5-of-24 from the field in the second half — and the rise of a transfer duo in LJ Figueroa and Mustapha Heron, who combined for 30 points in the final 20 minutes.
“I definitely do,” said Jay Wright when asked if he considers St. John’s as a Big Dance team. “I stack them up with the teams we have played this year – Marquette, Michigan, Kansas – this team, I think they will be a tournament team.”
St. John’s showed how good it can be, down 48-34 with 12:45 left in regulation. In a span of not even four minutes, the Red Storm reeled off a 14-1 run through transition. They would finish with 26 fast break points on the night.
“I think they’re one of the best transition teams in America,” said Wright. “When they get out in the open floor, good luck.”
“Our defense is everything,” said Mullin. “We held these incredible championship players to some low numbers and we knew they were going to keep coming.”
The Red Storm skipper, in his fourth year, was referring to the duo of Phil Booth and Eric Paschall. The duo, which came in averaging over 38 points per conference game, combined to shoot just 4-for-22 from the field and were held to 24 points.
A potentially NCAA Tournament clinching bid would take big shots as well. Figueroa delivered, nailing a three with 3:51 left to push the Johnnies up 58-57. It was the last field goal make of the game. The big shots came in the form of the charity stripe from that point on, as the Red Storm shot 13-for-14 from the free throw line in the final three minutes and change.
“We came together as a team, and having vets on your team, you know they’re going to push you to always do your best,” said Figueroa.
Experience often plays a part in March, and Heron echoed his teammate, saying the halftime locker room was not one of frustration but one of how the Johnnies could rally.
“We were at the whiteboard trying to figure out a way to get back in it,” said Heron. “I’ve been on teams where the vibe may have been different down double-digits at the break. This team is different from those, though.”
For Mullin, the program’s proud son, to capitalize on this stage against the reigning national champions was all that much sweeter for him.
“It has been a natural progression for us, which is nice,” said the head coach, who has endured three losing seasons to start his tenure. “I am really happy for our guys, that they got to experience a night like tonight in Madison Square Garden.”
Exactly four weeks from Selection Sunday, it felt like a coronation in New York that St. John’s was back on the dance floor. It felt like a sign of what’s to come Big East Tournament Week from March 13-16 inside The World’s Most Famous Arena.
“It was as loud as I’ve ever heard it,” said Mullin, who grinned. “Maybe louder.”
PHOTO: LJ Figueroa/ adam hunger (AP)