Milwaukee, WI – Chris Mullin was a exceptional shooter and an outstanding scorer in his playing days first as a collegiate at St. John’s and then during a 16-year run in the NBA. Mullin developed a sense of detecting when a player was headed for a big scoring game either by looking in the mirror or reading the body language of a teammate or opponent. As the opening minutes of Tuesday night’s St. John’s at Marquette game unfolded, Mullin, now the head coach at his alma mater, took a look at St.John’s high-scoring guard Shamorie Ponds and liked what he saw.
“With Shamorie, you can tell quickly when he’s moving with pace,” said Mullin. “You could see in our first possessions that he had good thrust. When he’s playing with pace and doing other little detail stuff, he’s that much more to deal with.” Ponds proved to be too much for Marquette to deal with as he scored a game-high 28 points to lead the Red Storm to 70-69 victory over the the 10th ranked Golden Eagles.
Marquette entered the game with an 8-1 Big East record, and even though St. John’s brought a losing conference mark of 4-5 into the contest, it was hard to call this one an upset. It was St. John’s, after all, that pinned the lone conference loss on Marquette’s ledger when the Red Storm beat the Golden Eagles 89-69 in New York on January 1 in the Big East lid-lifter for Marquette. “St. John’s is a difficult match-up for us,” said Marquette Coach Steve Wojciechowski. “They’re really playing five guards for most of the game. Their speed, their length, their quickness and their ability to switch makes it hard.”
All St. John’s starters stand between 6-1 and 6-7 and it’s no exaggeration to say that all of them possess the ball handling abilities of skilled guards. Mullin runs a type of four-out, one-in offense. With most of his players a threat to score from distance, the St. John’s offense spreads the opposing defense and provides drive-and-kick opportunities for players like Ponds. A 6-1 junior and native of New York, Ponds started strong with nine first-half points and finished stronger with 19 points after intermission. Entering the game with the Big East’s seventh best free throw percentage of .821, Ponds was money at the line making all nine of his attempts with five of those coming in the last three minutes of the game.
Ponds is a three-level scorer with a blow-by first step. Play the drive and risk watching him raise up from behind the three-point line to knock down a triple with his left-handed shooting stroke. Although he made only one of five attempts from distance against Marquette, he’s among the Big East leaders with an average of over two made triples per game. But Ponds does his best work off the bounce where he gets into the teeth of a defense to either score or pitch out to teammates for open jump shots. Ponds’ 5.5 assist per game average leads the Big East.
It is not often that the 6-1 Ponds finds himself with a height advantage over his defender, but that was often the case against Marquette. Wojciechowski assigned 6-5 Sacar Anim, his best perimeter defender, to guard Ponds. With Mullin running ball screen action involving Marquette’s 5-11 Markus Howard to force a switch and match Howard up on Ponds, Ponds took it right to Howard when he came up against Howard guarding him. Twice in the first half Ponds posted up Howard in the midrange and scored over the top of him with jumpers.
Marquette had won eight straight games despite starting slowly in many of those games. That scenario played out again against St. John’s as the Red Storm went into halftime with a 40-30 lead. Justin Simon, a R-Jr and transfer from Arizona, and Mustapha Heron, a junior who played his first two seasons at Auburn, combined to score 23 first-half points. Heron opened the eyes of over 14,000 Marquette fans who braved a winter storm to attend when he knocked down his first three shots, all from behind the arc, in the game’s first four minutes.
“I didn’t think we played hard in the first half,” said Wojciechowski. “When we’re locked in, we’re a good team. I don’t think we had spirit and connectivity and fight that this team has shown. When we have those things, we’re good. We’re beatable–but good. And when we don’t have those things, we’re really beatable.”
Marquette might have survived failing some of those benchmarks Wojciechowski referenced had the Golden Eagles made their normal number of shots from behind the arc. But bothered by the quickness and length of St. John’s defenders, Marquette missed its first nine shots from distance. And this from a Marquette team that entered the game with the Big East’s top three-point shooter by percentage in Joey Hauser and two of his teammates in Howard and Sam Hauser among the top 11 in three-point shooting percentage.
“I think our defense against Markus Howard and the Hauser brothers was the focus point,” said Mullin. “Howard can get free and get 40 in a half. Our focus was to try to get them into the two area and live with those shots and some post-ups. Overall, I thought our defense was exceptional. Those are three of the best shooters on any one team in the country.” Mullin went on to call his team’s defensive performance “a total team effort. To hold them to 69 points on their home court was phenomenal.”
Howard entered the game as the top scorer in the Big East and fourth best in the country with his 25 ppg average. In two-plus seasons in a Marquette uniform, no conference team has given Howard more fits than St. John’s. Howard endured a 2 for 15 shooting night the first time the teams played and is shooting just 26 percent from the field in his career against the Red Storm.
But Howard is as ignitable a scorer as there is in college basketball and it’s hard to hold him down for extended periods. With St. John’s leading by 12 late in the first half, Howard scored nine points in less than 90 seconds to cut the Red Storm lead to five. Included in Howard’s scoring spree was a four-point play when he was fouled making a shot from distance and converted the ensuing free throw.
Sam Hauser spearheaded Marquette’s second-half comeback. The 6-8 junior who entered the game among the top 11 conference scorers and rebounders, scored 12 points after intermission and finished with a double-double of 19 points and 11 rebounds. A two-level scorer from distance and in the midrange, Hauser was especially effective dribbling into midrange jump shots and knocking them down. “We played defense at a higher level in the second half,” said Hauser. “We worked the ball better and got better shots. They’re just a good team and they showed that tonight.”
Marquette completed its second half rally by overtaking St. John’s at 69-68 when Anim knocked down a right corner three-point shot with 32 seconds left in the game. Mullin put the ball into the hands of Ponds out of a timeout and Ponds delivered. With an open court and the ball above the top of the key, Ponds took advantage of a slight slip by Anim, guarding him at the time, and beat Marquette secondary defenders to the basket to score to put St. John’s ahead 70-69. “Sacar slipped, those things happen,” said Wojciechowski. “We wanted anybody but Ponds shooting, and we didn’t do that. And that can’t happen.”
Marquette had the ball coming out its own timeout with 11 seconds remaining. Wojciechowski designed a ball screen action involving Howard and Hauser, but the play got off to a rocky start when Howard momentary lost control of his dribble. He recovered it in time to get off a three-point attempt, but the shot was off the mark. The rebound fell into the hands of the Red Storm’s Marvin Clark with two seconds left on the clock. “We wanted to get the ball upcourt without calling a timeout and letting their defense get set,” said Wojciechowski. “But there was confusion. We wanted Markus and Sam in a two-man game at the top of the floor. We wanted the ball in one of those two guys’ hands.” Hauser added that “we got a good look. It just didn’t fall.”
St. John’s won its second conference game in a row, both on the road. Sandwiched between those victories was a 91-61 loss at number two ranked Duke. “This was a great bounce-back win for us,” said Mullin. St. John’s opens a three-game homestand on February 9 against Providence. Things don’t get any easier for Marquette when it returns to action on February 9 in a home game against 14th ranked Villanova.