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St. John’s squeaks by Cal in the Legends Classic semifinal, 82-79

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Far closer than expected from a hot-shooting California team.

California made tough shots, but a Shamorie Ponds, Cal turnovers, and some poise down the stretch helped get the Johnnies into the winners bracket in the Legends Classic tonight.

The Red Storm, now 4-0, were led by Shamorie Ponds 32 points, and the team’s deft free throw shooting in the second half. But it was far more difficult than anyone watching would have expected.

In the first half, Cal’s star guards Paris Austin and Darius McNeill got off to a fast start, making their first six shots on the way to a 6-0 lead and a 13-6 lead. St. John’s clawed back and took the lead after a Mikey Dixon three-pointer. Bu McNeill hit three straight threes, and Cal, a team thought to be 14 point underdogs, was gaining confidence, making tough shots off the dribble.

St. John’s got into a bear fight.

The three-pointers for the Red Storm were not falling, but the defense was pesky. The Johnnies forced nine turnovers in the first half, and those extra shots were the difference in the first half. Coupled with Shamorie Ponds turning on the jets late in the half, the Johnnies went into the second half with a solid lead.

But Cal didn’t come across the country to lay down. In the first half, when the Bears were able to shoot, they shot well. In the second half, they stopped turning the ball over, and the Johnnies defense struggled to get stops.

Down seven points at the half, the Bears tied the game with 12 minutes left on a layup from Darius McNeill, and proceeded to start carving up the Red Storm with more threes and drives. The Bears found open gaps to get to the rim, and continued to get the feet set for long jump shots. The 7’3” freshman Conor Vanover was making getting to the basket hard on the Red Storm.

St. John’s began to look frustrated and take no-ball-movement hero shots, the kind of team that wonders why it fell to Cal.

The crowd quiet, the Johnnies down as many as seven, and with both Mustapha Heron and Marvin Clark II with four fouls, St. John’s was pulled from the dank cellar that the game had become by seven straight points from Shamorie Ponds.

Ponds forced a steal, a nifty back pass to Trimble, and the Johnnies executed on a tough sequence that saw Trimble miss TWO three pointers on the same possession, Justin Simon grab the rebound, and get fouled by Vanover, the Cal center who had been so disruptive before, while making a basket.

That Red Storm lead was short-lived, and the two teams went back and forth until a Shamorie Ponds drive drew a pair of fouls, part of a personal 7-2 run, which included a long three-pointer that gave the Red Storm a four-point cushion that was enough to hold on for the win.

St. John’s shot 15/16 on free throws in the second half.

St. John’s faces the winner of Temple/ VCU tonight, and hope to shore up their defense while they await their matchup.

Accolades

Shamorie Ponds: 32 points (8/8 2PT, 3/7 3PT, 7/7 FT), 5 assists, 1 steal, 0 turnovers

Mustapha Heron: 13 points (5/8 2PT, 0/2 3PT, 3/3 FT), 4 assists, 1 turnover

LJ Figueroa: 12 points (2/2 2 PT, 2/3 3PT, 2/2 FT), 2 assists, 3 turnovers

Justin Simon: 8 points, 4/6 2PT, 7 rebounds (3 offensive), 4 assists

California

Paris Austin: 17 points, 4 assists, 1 steal

Justice Sueing: 19 points (5/10 FG, 8/9 FT), 9 rebounds (8 defensive)

Darius McNeill: 19 points (5/10 3pt, 2/5 2pt), 2 steals

St. John’s continues in Brooklyn tomorrow.