St. John’s and Duke tipped off “The Garf” on Saturday, and it was only fitting that the first-ever event was just as special as what Howard Garfinkel meant to college basketball with his revolutionary five-star basketball camps.
A packed Madison Square Garden audience watched Shamorie Ponds, a former five-star recruit, lead his Red Storm to victory over a Duke Blue Devils team that was loaded with five-star talents.
The Red Storm was able to pull off the upset on No. 4-ranked Duke, winning 81-77.
”To turn it around against one of the storied college basketball programs around, it’s more important to get that winning taste back in their mouths,” St. John’s head coach Chris Mullin said of the win.
Up until Saturday, the Red Storm had found itself in a number of closely contested games. Some of those were upset situations. While a victory had eluded them all throughout conference play thus far, the Johnnies were able to finally close one out for the win.
”The month of January was rough for us,” St. John’s big man Tariq Owens said. “Coach never stopped preaching to us and we stayed in the gym and it finally paid off. We have been there so many times and I can’t tell you how many games we lost by five points, but it came down to the little things. We had some mistakes at the end, but we kept going through it.”
Despite trailing 39-32 at the half, St. John’s never truly felt out of the game. The Red Storm kept the game within reach. Its defensive intensity was finally matched on the other side of the court, as it got the offensive production it needed to eventually overtake the Blue Devils.
A 10-2 run by St. John’s catapulted the Red Storm in front for the first time all game. From there, it would push the lead to as high as 11.
Duke wouldn’t go away quietly, rallying back and eventually snatching the lead back in the closing minutes of the game after a pair of Gary Trent Jr. free throws made it 73-72 with 1:34 to go.
A five-point swing by Ponds helped St. John’s regain the lead and while it got tight at the end, the Red Storm would hang on for the victory, much to the delight of the home crowd.
”We stayed composed,” Ponds said. “We’ve been in that role before, but we didn’t want to give up another one. They got a lead but we stayed composed.”
Ponds scored a game-high 33 points. He also grabbed seven rebounds and had four steals. Ponds, who had struggled from the three-point line this season, shook it off and drained four baskets from deep--including a late-game three that made it a two-possession game in the closing seconds.
”Shot clock was winding down--Coach wanted me to curl off a screen and shoot it,” Ponds said of his final three from NBA range. “I was confident taking that, and it went in.”
Bashir Ahmed added 19 points and was 3-of-4 from deep. Owens contributed 17 points to the winning effort.
For Duke, Trent led the way with 22 points, including five 3-pointers. Marvin Bagley III added 19 points and seven rebounds. Wendell Carter Jr. was a problem for the Red Storm inside, finishing with 14 points, 15 boards, and four blocks. Trevon Duval had 11 points and five assists.
The Blue Devils struggled to take care of the ball against the Johnnies, giving up 18 turnovers, which became 24 Red Storm points.
St. John’s will look to maintain its upset mentality, when it resumes Big East play and takes on No. 1-ranked Villanova on Wednesday. Tip-off is slated for 7 p.m.
Three take-aways from the game:
There’s no doubt that St. John’s defense has been the best part of the Red Storm this season. The way that the Johnnies force turnovers, generate steals, and protect the rim is already well-documented. What hasn’t been spectacular or consistent is the way St. John’s performs offensively and scores game in and game out. Against Duke, the Red Storm proved how formidable it can be when its offense catches up to its defense.
St. John’s, which hasn’t particularly been amazing from three-point range, got 8-of-17 three-point shots to fall. While Ponds did most of the damage, it was also a solid game for Ahmed and Owens, the two other Johnnies to eclipse double figures scoring-wise. Just like Ponds, they hit some timely, crucial baskets to keep them in the game or help them stay ahead. Overall, St. John’s was 30-for-65 (46.2 percent) as a team.
”It’s what we’ve been waiting for,” Mullin said. “I thought tonight we did a better job of scoring off our defense. Our defense has been able to get stops and force turnovers, but we haven’t capitalized in transition. That’s something that I think we should be really good at and we did a good job last game and even better today.”
Aside from being able to play well on both ends of the court, this is a huge sigh of relief for St. John’s, which has lost seven of its 11 previous games by seven or fewer points. There were a few possible upset opportunities that slipped out of their hands coming down the stretch. The Red Storm wasn’t letting this one go.
Ponds has definitely had some big performances, but if there’s any doubt remaining on whether or not he helps St. John’s--that was erased on Saturday afternoon. In the previous game against Xavier, the sophomore star netted his 1,000th career point.
He’s dialed up some big games, even when his team has lost--37 points against Villanova, 33 in a double-overtime loss to Georgetown, 31 earlier in the week against Xavier. Ponds led the way with 33 points. A 5-star recruit coming out of high school, Ponds opted to stay home, and performed very well against a team full of 5-star talents. Ponds made a number of key shots, timely threes, and played his part on defense as one of the Red Storm’s top turnover generators.
”They’ve been involved in a lot of really close games in the conference,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “I know it’s been frustrating for them, but they came out and they were teh better team today. Ponds was terrific, but they also played with an enthusiasm and togetherness that I’m sure they liked. It was tough for us to defend them.”
The Age Old Debate
It’s always a recurring topic in college basketball. The alluring, show-stopping talent of one-and-dones, or the traditional three, four-year collegiate player. While one-and-dones might sit atop the recruiting rankings, experience is still a factor. The traditional type of player provides fans and the program with people that they can grow attached to, as they watch them grow and develop.
Outside of Grayson Allen, Duke had a number of young players and highly-touted freshmen. Coach K alluded to the inexperience that comes with youth.
”We did not play basketball the first 32 minutes worthy of our program and we had blank faces,” he said. “We didn’t talk. We were like five individuals out there, and it was disgusting really, and no matter what we said nothing worked with our team, until the last eight minutes, then we had a chance to win.”
He quickly debunked any theory that his team underestimated St. John’s, which entered without a single Big East win.
”We came in prepared, you don’t look at records, you look at who you’re playing,” he continued. “They’ve been in close games...against some of the best teams of the country. They’re right there. We looked at them and we had to defend them that way, and we didn’t.”
Mullin saw it differently. Embracing the idea of one-and-dones, saying that he would welcome them if they came and “make them the focus.”
However, he also saw the positive side in retaining a lot of the same players together and seeing how they grow.
Regardless, while Duke might have the better regular season record right now, Saturday was a victory for the non-one-and-done teams.