This was Groundhog Day, and winter had been brutal in Queens. St. John’s had not won a basketball game in six weeks, starting the Big East season 0-11, losing in every way imaginable.
There had been lots of almost-wins. The Red Storm had come within five and six points of Xavier, five and seven of Creighton, five of Seton Hall, three and four of Georgetown, seven of Villanova. “When you’re close,” coach Chris Mullin would say later, “you feel terrible.” They were often right there, except for the days they weren’t.
The Big East had pounded St. John’s in rebounding by a 41-30.6 average margin, and the knee injury to second-leading scorer Marcus LoVett had considerably thinned the bench. Red Storm reserves were contributing only 5.2 points in league games. The optimism from a 10-2 non-conference record had vanished like a mirage. This had become truly college basketball’s school of hard knocks.
“I learned life is not always going to go as planned,” Ponds said. “It’s going to be a tough road. You just have to stay the course and be mentally strong.”
What was a beleaguered coach to do, with mighty Duke in town the next day, probably only to make things worse?
“Digesting it, talking through it, and then moving on,” Mullin said. “You just can’t ignore it.”
What would happen next might be the most stunning renaissance in years in in college basketball. A shocker over No. 4 Duke in Madison Square Garden, then an upset at No. 1 Villanova, then a thumping of Marquette, as Ponds exploded for 44 points.
Suddenly, winter had ebbed and everything had changed at St. John’s. “The six weeks before,” Mullin said, “felt like six years.”
How a program revived itself in eight days . . .
Feb. 3. The Red Storm went from 10 points down to 11 up against Duke, but the Blue Devils charged back to take a 73-72 lead with 1:35 left. Another excruciating near-miss seemed at hand for St. John’s.
Not this time. Ponds drove for a basket, added a 3-pointer, and the Red Storm sealed it with late free throws, 81-77. Ponds had 33 points, and his team fought Duke nearly even on the boards and had seven fewer turnovers. St. John’s had been resuscitated, in Madison Square Garden.
“We would have taken a win if it was in an empty gym,” Mullin said. “There’s nothing like a win to make you feel better. Thank God January is over.”
Forward Tariq Owens: “Coach never stopped preaching to us and we stayed in the gym and it finally paid off. We have been there so many times . . . but it came down to the little things.”
It put the final Red Storm non-conference record at 11-2, matching their best in 27 years. But it was time to get back to the Big East.
Ponds: “We can start fresh.”
Feb. 7. Now they have. As with Duke, they took a lead against Villanova, had to protect against a charge, and made the plays at the end to hold on, 79-75. They had stopped dropping games in the final minutes, “We’ve been down that road before,” Ponds said, “and we were trying not to make the same mistakes.” Ponds scored 26 points, while the Red Storm shot 49 percent, had only 10 turnovers and actually outrebounded the Wildcats.
Once again, the starters had to carry the load. Mullin only used six players.
“Every single game I think we’re going to win,” Mullin said. “Since I was 10 years old, that’s how I approach each and every game.
“These are huge wins, but more importantly for the players, I think it’s a testament to their perseverance, unselfishness with each other, their confidence.”
Ponds tried to explain what was happening.
“We never lost the confidence, but no one wants to go through the losing. I feel like we stayed together, but we weren’t getting the outcomes we wanted. If we stayed together, it would eventually fall through.
“Now, we can’t go backwards.”
Feb. 9. “Last five days have been crazy,” Owens said of the reaction on campus. “It feels good because we have been working towards this.”
Marquette was next, a good team with potent shooters, but no glossy national ranking. How might the Red Storm handle a possible letdown?
“What can be more of a letdown than 11 straight losses?” Owens said.
“We have proved to ourselves that we are capable of winning those types of games,” guard Justin Simon said. “I think we have lost every way that we can.”
Mullin mentioned the importance or the little things of winning basketball. Make layups, make free throws, keep emotions in check, stay resilient. Things that can get you beaten if lacking, and did. The Red Storm’s season had been crumbling one little chip at a time.
“Through that period of time, we would watch film and that’s what we saw,” Mullin said. “It wasn’t like we were editing the film to put fake stuff in there. It’s what we saw.
“I don’t think it’s possible to get ahead of yourselves when you’re getting your heat beat in. As far as how we’ve handled it, even-keeled is the ultimate goal, but that doesn’t mean that after the game, you aren’t down. You have to come back, and that’s what we did. The fact of the matter is, we played pretty good basketball; not well enough, and not very different in the wins.”
Feb. 10. There would be no letdown. Not with Ponds scoring 44 points, the most ever by a player in Carnesecca Arena – and his third 30-plus performance in four games. Not with a second consecutive double-double from Simon, or 60 percent shooting. St. John’s rolled 86-78, with all 86 points from the starting lineup. The Red Storm had more rebounds than the opposition for the second consecutive contest, after being outboarded 16 games in a row.
In eight days, St. John’s had gone from an apparently lost season to on a roll.
“We were getting the feeling,” Simon said, “that it’s about time.”
Mullin tried to put his team’s astonishing U-turn into some sort of perspective.
“That’s what’s most gratifying about these wins, what we went through to get to this point. A lot of things happen to different people over the course of their lives; we are all going to go through adversity, but how you handle it is as important, or more important, than actually what happens.
“I’m so old, it doesn’t matter to me, but for (the players), it’s a good life lesson that they hung in there and started to get rewarded. They didn’t give up, and if you give up, you have no chance.”
St. John’s is still short on reserves. The bench has scored 60 points in 13 Big East games. Ponds will not be on fire every night. Will he? The rest of the Big East has been duly warned. No one will be taking the Red Storm lightly, and three of the last five league games are on the road. The late season will have its challenges.
But so much has changed so quickly. St. John’s is now 13-13 overall – at the moment, probably the most dangerous .500 team in America.