After finding no success from long range in the first half, the Xavier Musketeers were finally able to exploit a St. John’s Red Storm squad that was ranked 289th in the country, when it came to defending the three-point line.
St. John’s found itself in a familiar situation in Thursday’s quarterfinal against Xavier, trailing at the break, but still close enough that it wasn’t out of the game. Xavier changed all that, as it heated up from beyond the arc to spark a strong second half finish. Eventually, there was no contest, as the Musketeers won, 88-60, to move onto the semifinals.
”Coming into the game, we had a ton of respect for St. John’s, knowing htat both games this year were nip and tuck,” Xavier head coach Chris Mack. “They could’ve beaten us at Cintas, and they could’ve beaten us at Carnesecca.”
Xavier swept St. John’s in both regular season meetings. The Musketeers defeated the Red Storm twice, but didn’t win by more than six points in either meeting--and it was before the Johnnies’ red-hot streak in February.
On Thursday, there were no questions asked, as they won in lopsided fashion after a close first half to advance to their fifth-straight Big East Tournament semifinal game.
In the first half, the Musketeers were an uncharacteristic 2-of-10 from long range. They turned things around by starting off the second half making 5-of-7 three-pointers. It was the spark that the top-seeded team in the Big East needed and from there, it could hardly look back.
Meanwhile, St. John’s kept trying to match and answer every Xavier three with a long-range basket of its own. Unfortunately, the 33.8 percent-shooting team from beyond the arc (235th entering Thursday’s contest) could not get its threes to drop.
”I’m not sure what adjustments they made, but they stepped it up on defense,” St. John’s Justin Simon said. “...They’re a tough team to stop once they start making shots.”
For a majority of the game, the Red Storm took a majority of its shots from deep. The uncharacteristic amount was one of the reasons for its downfall, as it shot just 6-of-27 (22.2 percent) beyond the arc. In the second half, it was much worse, where it 1-for-12 from deep. Once the Red Storm started to adjust its gameplan, it was far too late, as the Musketeers had built themselves a healthy lead. At one point, the X-Men led by as much as 21.
”I loved the way we played defense in the first half and second half,” Mack said. “We defended our tails off.”
It didn’t help St. John’s that Xavier found a way to capitalize on nearly every single St. John’s turnover. While the Red Storm usually take great care of the ball, the Musketeers punished them for every mistake. 11 turnovers led to 22 easy points for the Musketeers.
St. John’s was led by Marvin Clark II, who had 18 points and six rebounds. Justin Simon had 14 points before fouling out late in the game. Shamorie Ponds had 15 points and seven rebounds, but shot just 4-of-14 on the floor.
Ponds had 11 of his 15 points in the second half, but didn’t seem to get into a rhythm at any point in the game.
”It’s tough, he’ll make some contested shots that’ll zap your confidence defensively,” Mack said of Ponds. “Fortunately, he missed those.”
As for Xavier, Trevon Bluiett emerged in the second half, finishing with a game-high 27 points and seven rebounds. 18 of the senior guard’s 27 points came in the final 20 minutes. Teammate Kaiser Gates had 16 points and was 6-for-7 on the floor, including four made three-pointers.
”They’re a tough team to play regardless of circumstances,” St. John’s head coach Chris Mullin said, of having to play the top-seeded Musketeers less than 24 hours after winning an opening round game against Georgetown. “The turnaround is what it is, but it’s what you get for being ninth.”
St. John’s finishes the season 16-17. Meanwhile, the Musketeers improve to 28-4 overall. They will play the winner of the battle between the Providence Friars and the Creighton Bluejays on Friday at 7 p.m.