St. John’s can exhale: Now the real fun begins

The first chants filled Madison Square Garden just before 11:30 Tuesday night, with just over five minutes left in the game. St. John’s had shaken off some first-half sluggishness and selfishness and surged against DePaul in the second half, the lead reaching 12, then 15, then 17. And now the crowd wanted to be heard.

“LET’S GO, JOHNNIES!

LET’S GO JOHNNIES!

LET’S GO JOHNNIES!”

It was a chant that sounded like an exhaling, for a team and a fan base that had been trapped in a funk for weeks. Soon enough this 82-74 St. John’s victory in the first round of the Big East Tournament would be in the books, and Shamorie Ponds and Justin Simon would wave at the crowd, salute them, encourage them to shout louder. For the first time in a long time, everyone could breathe again.

“We packed for four days,” Ponds said after scoring 18 points and adding seven assists, talking about the Johnnies’ long-term plans in this four-day Big East Tournament. “We were looking forward to this.”

They played that way, and this win ought to finally, at long last, solidify St. John’s place in the 68-team NCAA bracket, which will be revealed Sunday. There are some — starting with me — who have a hard time believing the Johnnies have clinched a detour around Dayton for the First Four already, but most of the bracketologists who make it their business seem to think they have.

So however long this tournament lasts now for them, it is about getting into the right frame of mind to play wherever they are sent to play next week, either on Thursday or Friday. As St. John’s proved itself Wednesday night against DePaul, it remains an extremely hard task to beat a team three times in a season, and that’s the task awaiting the Red Storm on Thursday night against Marquette.

As important as anything is tightening up the long stretches of every game in which the Johnnies seem hell-bent on sabotaging themselves. The truth is, for all the frustrations they’ve given their fans, for all the games in which they have underachieved and underperformed this year, they are going to get the sweetest prize of all:

A second chance.

And if we are still talking about the Johnnies a few weeks down the line — if the Sweet-16-level talent that so many experts have insisted resides on this roster actually negotiates its way to the Sweet 16 — there will be little talk about the other DePaul games, or the Providence games, or any of them.

There’s some work to get there of course.

But now it seems they really will get to do that work.

“I always preach to them to follow our daily habits, that’s what it’s all about,” coach Chris Mullin said. “Maybe that makes more sense at [age] 55 than at 21, but they’ve done a good job of that.”

If the Johnnies have had a chronic problem all year, it is this: They tend to be a little more full of themselves than they should be. They tend to play large swatches of games — especially games against teams they shouldn’t just sweep, but dominate — with dueling senses of accomplishment and entitlement they simply haven’t earned yet.

Such was the case all across the first half against DePaul, which was a perfect microcosm of all the things that have given the fans who still believe such a profound case of heartburn so often. It was clear to see which was the better team. If they’d simply drafted the five best players before the game, the only Blue Demon who would have a shot at cracking the Johnnies’ first five would be Max Strus. Maybe.

And early on, the talent spoke. It was 16-6 before you knew it. The Johnnies were playing crisply, and smartly, they were playing terrific defense, they were even rebounding the ball well.

And then they weren’t.

Then, they were looking like a team that barely deserved an invite to the CIT.

Let alone the NIT.

Let alone the NCAA.

They were playing hard, though. That was a concern coming in, not only because they have slept-walked through some of their most egregious performances this year but also because the team came into the game carrying a collectively heavy heart, since Mullin had attended the funeral of his older brother, Roddy, on Tuesday.

By night’s end, their hearts were full and their swagger was back. A second chance awaits next week. And they’re still packed for three more days here.

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