NEW YORK (AP) - Facing the possibility of taking a four-game losing streak into Selection Sunday, Shamorie Ponds and St. John's ran away from DePaul to give their NCAA Tournament hopes a boost.
Ponds scored 18 points, had seven assists and led a second-half surge as the Red Storm got a much-needed 82-74 victory in the first round of the Big East Tournament Wednesday night.
"Definitely important for us," Ponds said. "I felt like with this group we could do something special."
The seventh-seeded Red Storm (21-11) will face No. 2 seed Marquette in the third game of the quadruple header at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night. St. John's avoided being swept three games by the 10th-seeded Blue Demons (15-15) this season, burying DePaul in the second half.
Eli Cain led DePaul with 23 points before fouling out late.
St. John's seemed positioned to coast into the conference tournament with a high seed and an NCAA bid pretty much locked up just two weeks ago. The Johnnies proceeded to finish the regular season with three straight losses, including a nine-point loss at DePaul. With a chance to be the third seed at MSG, St. John's slid all the way into a high-stakes opening night matchup.
St. John's coach Chris Mullin, looking for his first NCAA appearance in his fourth season leading his alma mater, said the slump was no reason to panic.
"Look at some of our losses, we didn't play 40 minutes of bad basketball," Mullin said. "It was stretches that things happen in different times of those games that affected that particular game."
The Johnnies led by four at the half behind Justin Simons' 12 points, but not until Ponds became more assertive did they put some distance between themselves and the Blue Demons.
"I think that had a huge impact and that's usually our game plan," Mullin said of Ponds' play.
Ponds came off a screen to hit a 3 with 15:22 left in the second half and give St. John's its first double-digit lead at 50-40. A minute later LJ Figueroa made a 3 from the wing in transition and the lead was 53-42. A traditional three-point play from Ponds off an offensive rebound increased the lead to 12 with 12:31 left. After DePaul cut the lead to eight, Ponds dropped in a 3 to make it double-digits again.
Simon finished with 18 points and Mustapha Heron had 18 points and seven rebounds for St. John's.