National Player of the Year candidate Trevon Bluiett would hear nothing of a first round scare. The Musketeers’ star scored 18 of his game-high 27 points after the break as top-seeded Xavier ousted St. John’s 88-60 in the quarterfinal round of the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden.
The Red Storm traded blows with the #3 team in the nation through the first 20 minutes and actually held a five point lead midway through the period, but the Musketeers capped the half on a 16-7 run to bring a 33-29 advantage into the break.
Xavier opened the second half on a 15-6 run, pushing its advantage to double digits where it would remain the rest of the afternoon. The Musketeers were held to just 2-10 from beyond the arc through the first 20 minutes, but shot 7-11 in the second half including a stellar 58.1% from the field overall to run away with it late.
“I told those guys ‘Hey, can’t control sometimes when shots go in,’” Xavier coach Chris Mack said. “When we got a couple to pop in the second half on the offensive end and kept up our defensive intensity, that’s where we gained the separation.”
Xavier has now reached the Big East semifinals all five years of the current configuration, but has yet to claim a tournament title. The Musketeers advanced to the 2015 final before falling to Villanova.
Bluiett is one of just 13 players to be named to the Big East First Team three times. He was guaranteed to face off against one of the others Thursday afternoon, as both potential quarterfinal opponents St. John’s (Chris Mullin) and Georgetown (Patrick Ewing) are helmed by former players who have accomplished the feat.
“I don’t think I’m really trying to prove something,” Bluiett said. “I feel like who I am is who I am. My biggest thing is one goal, and that’s trying to win a Big East championship. That’s just me playing my hardest for my team, making sacrifices for my team, and if my work for my team comes out and says ‘hey, Trevon has proven himself,’ so be it.”
Junior Kaiser Gates finished 6-7 from the field and 4-5 from downtown to bolster Xavier’s scoring with 16 points. Kerem Kanter added 12 points, while J.P. Macura filled the stat sheet with nine points, six rebounds, five assists, and four steals.
The loss brings to close a rollercoaster season for St. John’s, which saw the team win 10 of 12 during non-conference play before dropping its first 11 Big East contests. Two of those initial conference losses came to Xavier, but by a combined 11 points.
Just 14 hours removed from Wednesday’s win over Georgetown, the challenge of taking on the top team in the conference was too much for the Red Storm to handle. The Musketeer’s 55 second-half points were the most allowed by St. John’s in any half this season.
“They’re a tough team to play against under any conditions,” head coach Chris Mullin said of Xavier. “They’re just a really good team through and through; got great guards, they’re physical. The turnaround is what it is. That schedule is laid out, and that’s what you get for coming in ninth.”
Redshirt junior Marvin Clark II led the Johnnies with 18 points while Shamorie Ponds managed 15 points and a team-high seven rebounds despite shooting just 4-14 from the field and 0-7 from three. Justin Simon connected on two of three triples for 14 points.
The lows of St. Johns’ season are undeniable, but the team’s tremendous second half with wins over #4 Duke and #1 Villanova gives onlookers plenty of hope heading into next year, which has the potential to be the seminal season of Mullin’s rebuild.
“It’s clear when we played unselfishly, played together, we’re a pretty good ball club,” Mullin said. “When we didn’t, we struggled. A lot of times we had some close games that didn’t go our way, but I thought we fought through that and to finish up the way we did I thought was impressive after having that tough stretch in January.”
Of top priority for next year’s squad is the status of Ponds, who will likely test the NBA draft waters but could end up back in Queens for his junior campaign.
In addition to Mullin’s incoming recruiting class, key newcomers include forward Sedee Keita and guard Mikey Dixon, who sat out this season after transferring at the close of their freshman campaigns at South Carolina and Quinnipiac, respectively.
In a year’s time, St. John’s will once more attempt to win back-to-back Big East Tournament games. The Red Storm have gone 18 years without accomplishing the feat, last doing so in 2000, which also marks the last time they claimed the Tournament title.
Vincent Simone covers the MAAC, Hofstra, and more for NYC Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.