By John FantaFollow @John_Fanta
NEW YORK, NY – If I had told you in November that St. John’s would play a one-possession game with Xavier without Mustapha Heron and LJ Figueroa having an off night, you would have called me crazy.
The Red Storm, picked ninth in the Big East preseason poll, were thought of as lacking depth beyond their two all-conference selections from the season before.
On Wednesday night, with that very situation at hand, the Johnnies led 74-69 with two minutes left at a raucous Madison Square Garden. It looked like the breakthrough was going to hit. The stars were aligning. Until they fell, and so did St. John’s, surrendering an 8-0 run to close the game and losing 77-74. The defeat dropped the Red Storm to 0-5 in Big East games decided by five points or less.
Xavier showed why it’s a program that’s been to the NCAA Tournament in 12 of the last 14 years. The Red Storm, however, reverted back to what fans have come used to for the last two decades.
A coach is hired to put his team in position to win. Mike Anderson had St. John’s on the doorstep, but between tough shooting and a late missed one-and-one opportunity, the door cracked open more and more for Xavier. When the Red Storm had a chance to take the lead back, Figueroa missed a runner that, as Anderson says, “that’s a floater that L.J. makes.”
You could argue that the late-game play calls weren’t strong, but at the end of the day, St. John’s dictated the style of the game, forcing 22 Musketeer turnovers to just four themselves. That’s predicated by Anderson’s scheme. In the closing moments, Xavier had Naji Marshall, who scored 15 points with 11 rebounds and five assists, including what turned out to be the game-winning dish. St. John’s had LJ Figueroa, who shot 2-of-17 from the field. The Musketeers have a freshman class who embody what the program stands for – winning. Anderson was hired deep into April.
“We had an opportunity to make free throws, and you have to make plays down the stretch,” said Anderson. “Give them credit. They made plays.”
Travis Steele has playmakers. Anderson needs time to get his.
Freemantle’s Dream Comes True
Xavier freshman forward Zach Freemantle always dreamed of playing at Madison Square Garden. In the Teaneck, NJ native’s first game inside The World’s Most Famous Arena, he hit what turned out to be the game-winning bucket with 10 seconds left. After St. John’s missed their chance in a one-point game, Freemantle stepped to the free throw line and hit both to ice it. He was jumping around in the postgame locker room, and rightly so.
“Growing up watching the Knicks here, I always thought how cool it would be to play at The Garden,” said Freemantle. “This was so awesome.”
“Zach’s everything this program is about,” said Steele of Freemantle, who ended up with 11 points and seven rebouds in the victory. “His progression has really changed our team because I really think he could be a double figure scorer for us every game.”
Xavier Wins Ugly, Taking a Step Forward to the Big Dance Floor
I asked Steele if Xavier wins this game a month ago. “Probably not,” said the the second-year head coach, who doesn’t sugarcoat much.
“I was proud of how our guys stuck together,” he added. “We were down by 7 there and the arena got real loud when they went on a run but our guys stuck together and finished the game the right way.”
The Musketeers notched their third quadrant one win, giving them a 3-8 record in that quad this season. Xavier is 6-1 against quad two and a combined 8-0 against quad three and four.
Up Next: #12 Villanova on Saturday at Cintas Center. Spicy.
Elsewhere in the Big East, there’s one game ahead Tuesday night and it’s a big one as #15 Creighton visits #19 Marquette. The Bluejays have won seven of their last eight and are just a game behind #16 Seton Hall (10-3) at 9-4 in the conference. A win for Creighton would be massive, considering three of the Jays’ final four are in Omaha, where CU is 14-1 this season.
The Pirates will look to respond Wednesday when they welcome #21 Butler. The Bulldogs are 7-6 and tied for fifth in the Big East, and after a trip to Newark Wednesday, meet #21 Creighton Sunday in Nebraska. That’s one heck of a swing. Bubbly Georgetown will host Providence and Villanova will travel to DePaul to complete Wednesday’s action.
Follow @John_Fanta on Twitter for the latest updates as well as @NCAAHoopsDigest.