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St. John’s final: Johnnies upend Butler 76-73

Unexpected grit.

Wendell Cruz

St. John's pulled out the win for the home crowd in the Big East opener, knocking off the visiting Bulldogs 76-73, who came into the game ranked #13.

St. John’s improves to 7-7 on the season. Butler falls to 11-2. And the Big East further cements its reputation of “no days off” in conference play

St. John's gave the Bulldogs a run all game, behind the kind of tough performance from Bashir Ahmed (19 points) that was expected when he signed with St. John's as a JUCO standout, and behind continued star performances from Shamorie Ponds, who had 26 points to lead all scorers.

There's seemed to be a limit to what this team can do on pure grit, on individual play and without threes.

And yet, this was a very good performance given the opponent, even before the late flurry to grab the lead. St. John's played solid, tough, smart offense for the whole game, despite the basic game plan not working.

From early on, the Butler defense was tough on St. John's, limiting the flow of St. John's - who were held to five assists. That number is a season low for the Red Storm (the Johnnies previously had a low of eight assists against Michigan State). Coupled with the turnovers - nine in the first half and 16 in the game - the numbers indicated a bad game for St. John's.

So how did the Red Storm end up tied in the first half, and again with 1:30 left against the tough, well-coached Butler Bulldogs? How did St. John’s tough out a win?

The Johnnies adjusted to Butler’s star forward Andrew Chrabascz and his skill set - interior scoring and passing - quickly, forcing him to give up the ball early. St. John's found scoring from Bashir Ahmed, whose attacking game was on point in stretches. And Darien Williams came off the bench to give some crucial minutes as well.

In the second half, Shamorie Ponds came alive, using his dribble to get long jump shots. That game is usually not a recipe for success, but tonight, that shot was falling. Ponds scored 19 of his 26 in the second half.

A critical three by Ponds with just under two minutes got the Red Storm within two points. And Malik Ellison, who started over Marcus LoVett in this game, forced a steal from Butler freshman Kamar Baldwin and dunked for the tie. Butler’s Tyler Wideman (20 points) found an offensive rebound off of an errant Chrabascz hook shot and added two more points for the lead again.

But then LoVett hit a corner jumper to tie the game with under a minute left. And a tough rebound by Malik Ellison after a Butler missed shot led to a Butler foul. Ellison made a free throw and Tariq Owens grabbed an offensive rebound, and Ponds ended up with the ball.

Ponds started to heat up in the second half, using his dribble to connect on four straight. And the team battled back from a 10 point deficit with 10 minutes to go behind tough plays from Ahmed. A late long three from Kamar Baldwin fell short, and St. John’s is feeling the holiday spirit, with two straight wins over well-regarded opponents.

Wendell Cruz

Marcus LoVett added 10 off the bench. Ponds led the team with seven rebounds. Darien Williams added six rebounds and six points; his points came in a crucial stretch in the first half.

The Johnnies shot 4/16 from outside the arc, but held Butler to 6/25 from the three - 2/13 in the second half. Butler shoots just under 40% on the season from beyond the three point semi-circle.

Next for St. John's is a road tilt on New Year's Day at DePaul.