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Legends Classic final score: St. John’s downs California, 82-76, to advance to championship game

What a night for Shamorie Ponds.

NCAA Basketball: Legends Classic Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

Shamorie Ponds was back home, and he needed to put on a show for the hometown crowd.

Sure, St. John’s is still located within New York City, but Queens just isn’t the same as Brooklyn, where he grew up.

”Feels good,” Ponds said, of being back in Brooklyn. “The crowd got us into it late in the game. Just felt good to be home.”

Under the bright lights of the Barclays Center, Ponds put together a magical performance in a back-and-forth contest between the Johnnies and the California Golden Bears.

He scored a game-high 32 points, with half of those coming in the final seven minutes of the game--when St. John’s needed it most. He helped spark a late-game charge to lead the Red Storm to an 82-79 victory.

”I think [Cal] scoring at such a high rate and shooting a high percentage really dictated the tempo of the game,” St. John’s head coach Chris Mullin said. “We were fortunate enough that Shamorie found his own rhythm.”

The hot-shooting Bears seemed like they were going to finally pull away late in the game. With St. John’s cooling off and unable to find a rhythm, the Golden Bears were able to settle back into the game and eventually take a 67-60 lead, after a Justice Sueing layup with 6:39 to go.

It set the stage for another Ponds spark. Just as he took over late in the game to will the Johnnies to victory against Bowling Green, he did the same against Cal, and the Bears had no answer.

He got some late-game help from Justin Simon and L.J. Figueroa, who would make the necessary baskets to give St. John’s the lead again heading into the closing minutes of the game.

A series of Ponds free throws would keep Cal at bay, but the biggest shot came with 1:06 remaining, when Ponds pulled up from well beyond the arc and drained a three-pointer to make it 78-74. He and Marvin Clark would add the necessary foul shots to put the game out of reach.

”I just found a rhythm, coach kept telling me to keep going,” Ponds said of his late-game takeover. “My teammates told me to keep going. I was hot, and I just wanted to stay hot.”

It was an exciting second half, after a first half in which St. John’s was able to endure a perfect 6-for-6 shooting start by Cal. Once the Red Storm settled in, it took a 38-31 lead thanks to a rally late in the first half by Ponds. St. John’s took a 38-31 lead at the break, and it looked like momentum was well on its side.

However, California was able to claw its way back, but couldn’t overtake Ponds and the Red Storm in the crucial closing minutes of the game.

Aside from Ponds, Mustapha Heron had 13 points and four assists. Figueroa finished with 12 points off of 4-of-5 shooting. Clark added a 10-point, eight-rebound performance to the winning effort.

As for the Golden Bears, Darius McNeill paced his team with 21 points. Sueing had 19 points and nine rebounds. Paris Austin chipped in 17 points, three boards, and four assists.

St. John’s improves to 4-0 overall, and will take on the winner of Temple-VCU in the 7 p.m. ET championship game on Tuesday night.

Here are three takeaways from the game:

Full Speed Ahead

It’s no secret or surprise that St. John’s has some athletes. The Red Storm players that make up the starting five, as well as a few others on the bench, can flat out fly up and down the court. While Tariq Owens might be missed for his size down low and his shot-blocking, St. John’s might not have been able to operate the same way its doing this season. At the sight of a turnover or a missed shot, once a St. John’s player corrals the ball, the other four are running a full sprint down court. It gave Cal some fits, as it led to wide-open shots and alley-oop finishes.

The Golden Bears were able to adjust and handle it better, but sacrificing offensive boards with a focus on getting back on defense immediately after seeing a missed shot. They were also better at marking and keeping track of their defensive assignments.

While the uptempo style of play is fun to watch and certainly led to many highlight plays, when opponents are able to stay hot and bury their shots, it limits St. John’s ability to get out on fast breaks. California was well into the game and shot an impressive 56.9 percent for the entire game, including a 44.4 percent showing from deep. A well-executed offensive gameplan can hinder or slow down the Johnnies, but if teams make mistakes, expect the Red Storm to take full advantage. Apart from the established guys like Ponds, Simon, and Clark--Heron, Figueroa, and Mikey Dixon have thrived in this faster style of play.

The Shamorie Show

Ponds put another reference point in the way-too-early Big East Player of the Year conversation. He was the preseason favorite, but he just seems more well-rounded across the board as a basketball player. He’s making the tough shots fall at a higher rate. His court vision and ability to be a playmaker has improved. Ponds’ long range shot is becoming effective again, and although a small sample size--things seem good so far from downtown through these three games. Last year, he shot an inefficient 25.3 percent from beyond the arc, which made him a tad more predictable--unlocking that area of his game would be dangerous for opponents and helpful for the Johnnies.

Also, his ability to take over games in crucial stretches was present once again. He’s done it twice already this season (California and Bowling Green), and while that competition might not be Big East heavyweights--it’s a much-needed trait for St. John’s. The Red Storm was on the losing end of so many close games last year--games that it could have easily won if a few things went their way.

Sure, the non-conference schedule difficulty might raise some questions, but St. John’s is building some much-needed confidence in late-game situations. With improved players contributing alongside Ponds, and now a 2-0 showing in these close contests--this upward trend that St. John’s is on is something to watch for as the season develops.

Shooters Shoot

This California team was still relatively unknown going into Monday night. Its two games prior to meeting the Johnnies were two extremes of the spectrum--an ugly blowout loss to Yale in Shanghai, then a lopsided win over Hampton. If there’s one thing for certain, this year’s squad should be better than the ugly 8-24 team from last season.

There were many issues with the then young California squad, but one of the blaring flaws was how the Golden Bears performed on offense. In the 2017-18 season, they were ranked 296th in offensive efficiency. They were in the bottom 20 for effective field goal percentage. Also, it might be hard to imagine with the way California shot the ball against St. John’s, but it only converted on 28.6 percent of three-point shots last season (349th).

Through three games this year, California is shooting 42.9 percent from deep (21st). Whether or not this sustains itself is yet to be seen, but its clear the Bears should be in better shape. They were able to fire from almost anywhere on the court and even sink the contested ones. Sueing and McNeill, now a year older and wiser, seem to be off to a much nicer start to their sophomore seasons--no longer freshmen. Also, Paris Austin being eligible after his redshirt transfer year is also a nice boost for the Golden Bears. The former Boise State Bronco is an excellent scorer and adds a much-needed punch to an offense that was virtually non-existent last season.