After two months of agony, 16 straight losses and weeks of key development, St. John's broke through with a team effort on Wednesday night at Carnesecca Arena as they defeated ninth place DePaul, 80 to 65.
"We got one," Durand Johnson said following the victory. "I don't have to explain to you guys why I walked in here with a smile. We got it done tonight and it's a good feeling."
"Excuse my French," Ron Mvouika added. "It's about damn time. But we knew we had to stick together. We had to have positive thoughts and a positive spirit. And the season isn't over. We'll go out and compete and try to get some more."
The Johnnies had a balanced attack that was led by Malik Ellison (11 points on 4-of-6 shooting), Federico Mussini (17 points on 3-of-7 shooting) and Johnson (18 points). Kassoum Yakwe added 11 points and 11 rebounds while Yankuba Sima came off the bench to put up six points, but more importantly blocked three shots to impose his will in the paint.
Amar Alibegovic, Felix Balamou and Christian Jones combined for 17 points and Ron Mvouika scored zero points but provided multiple quality hustle plays defensively. The Johnnies played strong defense, limiting the Blue Demons to 36 percent from the floor and 21 percent from three, and they moved the ball effectively on the offensive end of the floor, 18 assists on 26 field goals.
The Johnnies were also excellent in transition, especially in the second half. They got quick run-outs, finished around the rim and even had Jones distributing on the break.
The opening half featured sloppy play from both sides as the Johnnies shot 36 percent from all areas of the floor while DePaul shot 35 percent and did not make a single three pointer (0-of-6). But the Red Storm played with intensity defensively (Mvouika in particular made an impressive hustle play, whipping a pass cross court while falling out of bounds), moved the ball with ease on offense (nine assists on 13 field goals) and only committed five giveaways. St. John's also took smart shots and out-rebounded the Blue Demons by five.
Alibegovic got the Johnnies going with a quick five points before the first media timeout and then Ellison took over from there, sparking a 12-2 Red Storm run late in the first half by hitting two big corner threes. A monster alley-oop slam by Yakwe put the Johnnies up 30-21 with 2:50 left in the first half and the home team buckled up defensively to head into the break up seven, 31-24.
At the start of the second half, DePaul went on an 8-0 run as the Blue Demons were able to get out in transition and draw early fouls. But the Johnnies countered with their own fast break attack. The home team went on 19-3 run from the 16 minute mark to the 9:30 mark to increase their lead to 17 and they would never surrender. DePaul cut the lead down to eight with less than 1:30 remaining but that's as interesting as it would get despite some ugly St. John's turnovers down the stretch.
Eli Cain scored 25 points on 9-of-16 shooting to lead DePaul but Billy Garrett Jr. couldn't break free of Balamou and Ellison, scoring just 14 points on 4-of-15 shooting. Tommy Hamilton IV and Myke Henry only combined for 10 points.
With the monkey off their back, the Red Storm can now try to earn more wins down the stretch to give the team confidence heading into next season.
"I knew the situation coming in here," Chris Mullin said following the game. "You don't know exactly how it's going to turn out but the good thing is we have a really good group of kids. It makes it much easier. It's not like I'm making it up. When they come to practice I'm amazed at how much effort they give. Their energy and enthusiasm every day makes everything better."
Next up, the Red Storm (8-19, 1-13) will face off and try to play spoiler against the Seton Hall Pirates at Madison Square Garden on Sunday. The Pirates dominated the Johnnies, 79-60, earlier in the season in Newark.