NEW YORK (AP) — Facing the possibility of taking a four-game losing streak into Selection Sunday, Shamorie Ponds and St. John's ran away from DePaul to give their NCAA Tournament hopes a boost.
Ponds scored 18 points, had seven assists and led a second-half surge as the Red Storm got a much-needed 82-74 victory in the first round of the Big East Tournament Wednesday night.
"Definitely important for us," Ponds said. "I felt like with this group we could do something special."
The seventh-seeded Red Storm (21-11) will face No. 2 seed Marquette in the third game of the quadruple header at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night. St. John's avoided being swept three games by the 10th-seeded Blue Demons (15-15) this season, burying DePaul in the second half.
Eli Cain led DePaul with 23 points before fouling out late.
St. John's seemed positioned to coast into the conference tournament with a high seed and an NCAA bid pretty much locked up just two weeks ago. The Johnnies proceeded to finish the regular season with three straight losses, including a nine-point loss at DePaul. With a chance to be the third seed at MSG, St. John's slid all the way into a high-stakes opening night matchup.
St. John's coach Chris Mullin, looking for his first NCAA appearance in his fourth season leading his alma mater, said the slump was no reason to panic.
"Look at some of our losses, we didn't play 40 minutes of bad basketball," Mullin said. "It was stretches that things happen in different times of those games that affected that particular game."
The Johnnies led by four at the half behind Justin Simons' 12 points, but not until Ponds became more assertive did they put some distance between themselves and the Blue Demons.
"I think that had a huge impact and that's usually our game plan," Mullin said of Ponds' play.
Ponds came off a screen to hit a 3 with 15:22 left in the second half and give St. John's its first double-digit lead at 50-40. A minute later LJ Figueroa made a 3 from the wing in transition and the lead was 53-42. A traditional three-point play from Ponds off an offensive rebound increased the lead to 12 with 12:31 left. After DePaul cut the lead to eight, Ponds dropped in a 3 to make it double-digits again.
Simon finished with 18 points and Mustapha Heron had 18 points and seven rebounds for St. John's.
DePaul: Max Strus, the Blue Demons' leading scorer at 19 points per game, was held to 14 on 4-of-12 shooting after scoring 43 in DePaul's victory 10 days ago against St. John's. Strus saw a lot of Simon, the Big East defensive player of the year.
"They had a great game plan," Strus said. "He's a great defender and shut me down today."
St. John's: The Red Storm don't have a starter taller than 6-foot-7 and are at their best when they can get out in transition. They had 15 fast-break points against DePaul, offsetting getting outrebounded by the Blue Demons for the third time this season.
"I also thought in the second half we did a little better job in the open floor," Mullin said. "We got some stops and got some run outs."
DePaul: The Blue Demons are probably done for the season, but for the first time since 2006-07 they end the regular season without a losing record.
"I think we shifted the culture into a more positive direction," Cain said.
St. John's: The Red Storm swept Marquette this season, a couple of victories that help make their case for an NCAA at-large bid.
"We've just got to have the same game plan that we beat them guys at their home and our home," Ponds said.
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