St. John’s whips DePaul to finally lock up NCAA Tournament bid

For the first time in roughly three decades, defeating DePaul is cause for celebration. Because for the first time in four years, St. John’s can look forward to Selection Sunday.

In danger of fumbling away a once seemingly secure NCAA Tournament berth, the seventh-seeded Red Storm knocked off the 10th-seeded Blue Demons, 82-74 Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden in the first round of the Big East Tournament. The win snapped a three-game skid and essentially guaranteed Chris Mullin’s first trip back to the Big Dance since his Final Four run as a player in 1985.

St. John’s (21-11, 8-10), which had lost four of its previous five games and had dropped its two regular-season meetings with DePaul (15-15, 7-11), next meets second-seeded Marquette (23-8, 12-6) in Thursday night’s quarterfinals.

Though the Red Storm swept the Golden Eagles in the regular season, St. John’s has lost by a combined 69 points in the quarterfinals the past two years, and hasn’t reached the semifinals since winning it all 19 years ago.

Suiting up just one day after the funeral of Mullin’s older brother, Roddy, St. John’s received a strong defensive effort, and a balanced scoring attack, with Shamorie Ponds, Mustapha Heron and Justin Simon each scoring 18 points.

The game began with the always unpredictable Red Storm jumping out to a promising 16-6 lead. Turnovers came easily. Transition came naturally. Ponds hit his first two shots. Heron was aggressive and decisive. Simon, the Big East Defensive Player of the Year, smothered DePaul’s Max Strus, limiting the Blue Demons’ leading scorer, who put up 43 points in the most recent meeting with St. John’s, to one shot and no points through the game’s first eight-plus minutes.

Then, the always-lurking dark side of St. John’s appeared, extinguishing every good feeling which had been generated. As Ponds went nearly seven minutes without taking a shot, the Johnnies found new and infuriating ways to surrender possessions. There were inexplicable alley-oops that never came close to being thrown down. There was a double-dribble, a five-second violation, a careless inbounds pass and a series of loose balls, repeatedly lost by the more desperate team. At halftime, St. John’s had four assists and six turnovers.

Strus closed out a 12-2 run with a four-point play, tying the game at 18 midway through the half. Eli Cain sliced another six-point lead, scoring 16 first-half points, and tying the game at 27 with just over three minutes left in the first half.

Simon provided an unexpected offensive burst with a team-high 12 points by halftime, but even with DePaul hitting just 1-of-10 first-half 3-pointers, and trailing the entire half, St. John’s only held a 39-35 lead.

LJ Figueroa opened the second half with his contagious blend of one-man momentum. He recorded a steal and finished two fast breaks before drilling a 3-pointer to give St. John’s a 53-42 lead with 14:18 remaining.

His teammates soon tagged along. When Ponds touched the ball, he looked like last year’s leading scorer in the Big East. When Heron touched it, he looked like the leading scorer on Auburn, last year’s SEC champs. When the Blue Demons touched it, the Red Storm kept them out of rhythm with repeated double-teams on the perimeter.

St. John’s led by double-digits nearly the rest of the way. A quarterfinal berth was safe.

“I believe this team is built for this, built for March,” senior Marvin Clark II said before the game.

Now, we’ll find out.

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