It had been 45 days since they last won a basketball game. It had been 401 days since they last beat a Top 25 team.
Against all odds, the Big East’s last-place team snapped both of those streaks Saturday at the expense of maybe the most talented team in the country.
St. John’s toppled fourth-ranked Duke 81-77 at Madison Square Garden in one of this season’s most memorable upsets. The sloppy, listless Blue Devils sleepwalked through most of the game as though victory was a foregone conclusion, and the inspired Johnnies made them pay for waiting too long to play with energy and passion.
While Duke erased an 11-point deficit in the final seven minutes and appeared poised to pull off one of the late-game escapes that has become its trademark this season, the Blue Devils couldn’t finish the job this time. Shamorie Ponds stabilized the fading Johnnies, scoring six of his game-high 33 points in the final 90 seconds.
After Duke regained the lead for the first time since early in the second half on a pair of free throws by Gary Trent Jr., Ponds answered with a driving layup that put his team in front for good. Ponds then gave St. John’s the breathing room it needed, burying a heavily contested right-wing 3-pointer as the shot clock expired to extend the Johnnies’ lead to four with 40 seconds remaining.
Duke closed to within one seconds later when St. John’s left Grayson Allen free from behind the arc, but that was as close as the Blue Devils got. Allen misfired on two subsequent 3-point attempts and St. John’s sank four of six free throws in the final minute to finish off the upset.
Mike Krzyzewski: "They made us look bad but then we made ourselves look bad. We didn't play basketball the first 32 minutes worthy of our program. … It was disgusting, really."
— Jeff Borzello (@jeffborzello) February 3, 2018
While St. John’s had lost 11 games in a row entering Saturday and is still winless in conference play, there were still a few signs that the Johnnies might be able to hang with Duke.
St. John’s has better talent on its roster than its record indicates and had put a scare into both Xavier and Villanova earlier this season. Duke also has been vulnerable on the road all year, dropping games to Boston College and NC State and enduring a massive scare at rebuilding Indiana as well.
More indications that an upset was conceivable popped up once the game started as Duke committed 12 first-half turnovers, struggled to get Grayson Allen involved in its offense and consistently got beat to 50-50 balls. The Blue Devils start a pair of towering NBA prospects in their frontcourt and St. John’s played long stretches with four guards, yet somehow the Johnnies corralled nearly an identical percentage of their misses as Duke did.
Duke’s issues worsened in the second half as Ponds and forward Tariq Owens exposed the Blue Devils’ inability to properly defend a pick and roll. A St. John’s offense that has struggled against Big East defenses gashed Duke for 1.19 points per possession by carving up the Blue Devils off the dribble, getting to the foul line 18 times and turning misses into second-chance opportunities.
Maybe Saturday’s stunning loss will turn out to be a blessing in disguise for Duke. Maybe it will allow Mike Krzyzewski to get the attention of his talent-laden yet sometimes undisciplined team.
But with Selection Sunday just over five weeks away, the Blue Devils are running out of time to fix some of their glaring flaws and start performing like the preseason national title favorites.
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