St. John’s finally grabbed a victory inside Madison Square Garden.
But Wednesday night was neither an upstart win nor a buzzer-beating escape. The Red Storm throttled the Marquette Golden Eagles, winning 86-72. St. John’s dotted its i’s and crossed its t’s, leaving no gray area. For the first time all year, the Johnnies took control of the game and completed the job.
“I think tonight was probably our best 40-minute performance,” Chris Mullin said. “It was a complete game.”
Four players scored in double figures, including a large piece that had been missing for the first 23 games of the season.
“Kassoum is one of the nicest human beings on planet Earth,” Mullin said. “You just want good things for him.”
Kassoum Yakwe, the Johnnies’ shot-blocking thriller, showed up on the offensive side of the hardwood, scoring a season-high 14 points, while grabbing six rebounds and compiling three blocks. The Mali native’s game refreshed the team, giving flashbacks of the player he was in 2015-16. Yakwe averaged 7.1 points per game en route to a Big East All-Freshman Team Honoree, but has average only 3.1 points per game this season.
“I really did feel like it was coming [for him],” Mullin said. “We needed it.”
Yakwe’s performance didn’t explode out of the box score, but it filled in the gap that has plagued the Johnnies all season long. In the paint against Marquette, the Red Storm outscored its opponent 42-20 and out-rebounded the Golden Eagles 40-39. The ability of the slick and elusive guards to shoot from the perimeter and create off the dribble only holds so much weight. With a lack of inside action, opponents directed all of their defensive efforts on Malik Ellison, Marcus LoVett, Bashir Ahmed, and Shamorie Ponds.
“It definitely opened up the floor for everybody,” Ahmed, who had 23 points, said. “He was really aggressive getting to the basket and making free throws. They just clogged up on him and he kicked it out.”
St. John’s made 32 baskets on 17 assists, including a 10-of-24 clip from distance, good for 42-percent mark. The growth showed against a Marquette team coming off of two extraordinary wins at Creighton and against Villanova.
Stopping top players like Markus Howard, Kain Reinhardt, and others came easy for the Johnnies who had felt battled-tested after games against Villanova, Providence, and Xavier. Marquette averages six players in double digits. On Wednesday night, just one starter hit that mark.
“[Xavier] was a winnable game for us,” LoVett said. “So we took what we did from Xavier and we implemented it in tonight’s game and I think we did well with that.”
Taking down the team that defeated the top two teams in the conference speaks volumes about the growth of St. John’s and the increasing parity in the Big East. With a win Wednesday, St. John’s sits sixth in the conference with a 5-6 Big East record, trailing Villanova, Creighton, Xavier, Butler and Marquette.
The next test, however, will show the Big East what St. John’s is all about. Saturday, the Johnnies hit the road for Philadelphia its second encounter with Villanova. Having let a close game slip away on January 14 at the Garden, the Johnnies could very well return the favor against the National Champions. The Johnnies have improved, certainly, but Saturday gives St. John’s the chance to have its voice heard on the national stage.