One night after DePaul pushed top-ranked Villanova to the limits, St. John’s upset No. 13 Butler, 76-73, at home on Thursday night in the Big East opener for both programs.
One month ago, on the same floor, the Red Storm were defeated by Delaware State, 79-72. That home loss came after the Johnnies had capped an 0-3 stint in the Battle 4 Atlantis with a loss to Old Dominion. Earlier in December, St. John’s dropped a contest to LIU Brooklyn. Up until about eight days ago it looked like Year 2 of the Chris Mullin era was going to be a long as the inaugural one.
But then came the 93-60 thrashing of former Big East rival Syracuse on Dec 21. The Red Storm followed up that win with the biggest of Mullin’s short coaching career, knocking off a team whose resume already includes wins over Cincinnati, Arizona and Indiana.
St. John’s overcame early turnover woes with 54 percent shooting from the field. Freshman guard Shamorie Ponds was sensational, matching his season high of 26 points off 9-of-15 shooting. Bashir Ahmed followed by 19 points. Along with redshirt freshman point guard Marcus LoVett, who came off the bench on Thursday night, carried the Red Storm in the second half.
Butler stretched the lead to seven, the largest of the night, for the second time with under eight minutes to play. The trio of newcomers, who scored 16 of the team’s final 18 points, made it difficult for the Bulldogs to pull away. Their ability to penetrate off the dribble or off ball-screen helped keep St. John’s in the game in the final moments.
Full-court pressure defense applied in the second half appeared to have taken the typically efficient Butler offense out of sync.
Following a Kelan Martin jumper with 2:57 remaining, putting Butler up 69-64, the only field goal for the Bulldogs was an offensive putback from Tyler Wideman, which came after the St. John’s interior defense forced Andrew Chrabascz into a difficult shot in the paint. That broke a 69-69 tie, but LoVett quickly knotted the score again. On the ensuing possession, Tyler Lewis failed to find path to get Chrabascz the ball on the block with a smaller defender on him. Instead, Lewis settled for a 3-pointer that bounced off the iron. St. John’s would close the game out from the free throw line.
Up to this point, Butler had arguably been the biggest surprise in the Big East this season. While this will go as a tally in the “bad loss” column of their tournament resume, the Bulldogs still should finish in the top half of the league en route to another tournament appearance.
Within the last month St. John’s was defeated by Delaware State (kenpom: 339) and LIU Brooklyn (kenpom: 296). The Red Storm have shrugged those earlier disappointing losses with the two most impressive victories under Mullin. The program still has a long way to go, but back-to-back wins over Syracuse and No. 13 Butler can be want it needs to turn the corner.