By MICHAEL GARETH JOHNSON
There was a moment in Sunday’s game against Princeton at Madison Square Garden when the outcome was in doubt. There were about 15:30 minutes left in the first half, and St. John’s superstar guard Shamorie Ponds was blindsided by a cutting Princeton player and immediately went to the floor. The injury didn’t look serious, but Ponds was clearly in pain.
For the undefeated Red Storm, Ponds is their on-court leader. When he is playing, everything is calmer for St. John’s. The opposition is always aware of him — on both the offensive and defensive ends of the court. It was less than two minutes into the game when Ponds had already made it clear he was the best player on the court, with a sick spin move that left his defender twirling in circles and ended with Ponds’ laying the ball in before the other four Princeton defenders even knew he was trying to score.
Ponds sat out for about five minutes of the first half. During that time, his teammates held their own, playing at a frenetic pace, forcing turnovers and getting some easy fast break baskets. The style of play was not sustainable for St. John’s, though. On defense, they lost track of Princeton players on several occasions, allowing the sharpshooting opponents four open three-point shots that they knocked down with efficiency.
When Ponds reentered the game, it was like there was a collective sigh of relief from the rest of the St. John’s teammates. Everything settled down and the Johnnies went on to dominate the rest of the game. While Princeton made a few runs to keep it close at times — and exploited the Red Storm’s weakness on defense, protecting the three point line — it was clear that as long as Ponds was on the floor, St. John’s was going to win the game.
This is often the feeling fans get watching St. John’s play this year as they have run out to a 9–0 record for the first time since Malik Sealy was starring for the Red Storm in the 1990–1991 season. With Ponds, the team has a safety net that makes it feel like they are not going to lose — at least not to a team less talented. Even in the team’s narrow wins versus Bowling Green, California and in overtime versus VCU, there was a sense that Ponds would do enough to secure the victory for the Red Storm.
Rarely in sports do you see athletes with this calming effect in the clutch. When backed against a wall, you see them explode with incredible precision and focus. In Shamorie Ponds, St. John’s truly has a superstar who controls the court, makes his teammates better, and continues to improve both in his own play and in his leadership of the talented team from the heart of Queens.
The joy of following the Red Storm this season will be to see how good Ponds can become, and how good he can make this team. The next step on that journey is on Sunday versus Wagner at 4:30 p.m. at Carnesecca Arena.