LOS ANGELES—St. John’s faced a daunting task in the opening game of the 2017 Hall of Fame Classic at Staples Center. Playing 2,800 miles away from home without sensational guard Marcus LoVett and against the dynamic offense of No. 16 Arizona State, the Red Storm closed within one point late in the game, but couldn’t hold off an 11-0 ASU surge to close the game, losing 82-70.
The loss snapped the Red Storm’s win streak at three, splitting its two games on the West Coast, and drops its record to 8-2.
Forward Romello White scored 22 points and had nine rebounds to lead the Sun Devils and was named the game’s MVP. Shannon Evans II followed up with 18 points, six assists and six rebounds, with Kodi Justice chipping in with 15 points.
“They have great offensive players, they’re very aggressive,” St. John’s Head Coach Chris Mullin said after the game. “They attacked the paint and made deep shots. It’s a nice way to play. If we didn’t put a lot of pressure on their shot, they made shots. They’re a good offensive team.”
With the lead 12 points at the half, the Sun Devils lead by as many as 18 before the Red Storm cut the lead to one at 71-70. After a Justin Simon turnover, Justice nailed a three-pointer to push the lead four and ASU never looked back to remain unbeaten on the season.
Despite holding the nation’s fifth leading scorer, Tra Holder, to just seven points on 2/12 from the floor, the Sun Devil offense, which is averaging almost 93 points-per-game, played its trademark uptempo style, leading the charge and looking to press the ball at every opportunity.
“[Defending] those three guards are big priorities,” Mullin said. “That Justice kid can really shoot it; he shoots it deep. We wanted to contain them, keep them out of the middle and make them finish over our height and they came out really hot. I thought we maintained our composure.”
Despite shooting only 6/23 from the floor and 1/8 from beyond the arc, Shamorie Ponds led St. John’s with 19 points, seven assists and seven rebounds.
Marvin Clark II, who’s scored in double figures in five of the last six games, played a stellar second half and finished with 18 points on 7/13 shooting (including 4/7 from three) along with seven rebounds.
Tariq Owens was a revelation in the second half as well finishing with 17 points on 8/10 shooting, five rebounds and three blocks. No one else scored in double figures for the Red Storm. Justin Simon, who came off a career high 17 points in a win against Grand Canyon scored just six points.
After the game, Mullin cited Owens’s breakout game and believes he can build his confidence with tonight’s performance.
“Tarik’s got so many skills,” Mullin enthused. “We’ve seen it, but he doesn’t always put it together in a game. But those are shots he makes routinely; I’d love him to shoot those shots and he made them [tonight], because we’re gonna need them going forward. He had a good game offensively. He’s always great on defense and one of the smartest IQ guys we have. He’s got nice skills and he put it all together.”
Marcus LoVett, who missed his third straight game due to a knee sprain, was sorely missed on the perimeter. His active hands and aggressive defense might have slowed ASU in transition. Arizona State nailed 6/12 three-pointers in the first half, which ballooned its lead. Early on the Red Storm struggled to defend 6-foot-9 Vitaliy Shibel in transition and from behind the arc. He finished with a career-high 11 points.
“You always have to play to your strengths; so they have three small guards that are nice shooters,” Mullin said. “[Arizona State Head Coach Bobby Hurley’s] doing a nice job with what he has. His style matches his personnel.”
The game was free-flowing early on with both teams pushing the ball before ASU went on a 13-point unanswered run. ASU went up by two with 8:40 left in the first half, before surging ahead to 37-22 lead with 5:31 to go.
St. John’s offense in the first half was mostly on the perimeter leading to a woeful 4/13 (30.8%) from beyond the arc. Through the game’s first 10 minutes the Red Storm was 2/8. The Red Storm payed staunch defense and displayed that trademark New York City grit, but it got them in foul trouble with Brian Trimble, Kassoum Yakwe and Owens playing with three fouls each in the first half.
Ponds asserted himself late in the half with a three-point play to pull SJU within 12. Arizona State finished the first stanza cold from the field, going scoreless in the last 3:24, with St. John’s scoring the half’s final 10 points.
St. John’s started the second half aggressively chipping away at the lead and got within six points on an Owens put-back dunk with 11 minutes left in the game. After two consecutive baskets by White, Owens nailed a three-pointer to pull the Red Storm within five. After an ASU turnover, Justice fouled Ponds going to the hoop. Ponds nailed both shots from the stripe to bring SJU within three points with nine minutes left in the game.
With 2:41 left in the game, Ponds converted on a layup after stealing the ball from White to bring St. John’s within a single point. After ASU reserve Remy Martin missed a gimme, Trimble Jr. committed a costly turnover and St. John’s was never able to take the lead. Justice nailed a three for Arizona State at 2:08 and the Sun Devils just pulled away, scoring the game’s final 11 points. ASU made 23 of 27 free throws in the game, including its last eight in a row.
“There were a few turning points in the game and I thought Kodi’s three was huge,” Hurley said. “A momentum shot. I thought Remy’s pass, late clock, to Melo, and a great finish was a critical play. And again Remy with the charge late in the game. Those were big plays.”
Hurley, whose team is off to its best start since 1980-81 was proud of his squad and praised St. John’s gritty attitude and tough play.
“You have a lot of respect for St. John’s,” Hurley said. “They’re kind of reflective of New York and [they have] tough kids, hard-nosed, play hard, and aren’t intimidated by anything. I think the New York fans will love watching them this year as they get healthy and get their full complement of players.”