Zion Williamson, Duke show St. John’s how far it is from nation’s elite

DURHAM, N.C. — Shamorie Ponds smiled as he walked onto Coach K Court. Marvin Clark II slammed Cam Reddish onto its floor. Mustapha Heron repeatedly poked Zion Williamson in the chest.

St. John’s loved the rare opportunity to stand toe-to-toe with the most talented team in college basketball — and learned it isn’t close to standing on the same level as the country’s best.

After battling No. 2 Duke to a draw through most of Saturday’s first half, the Red Storm were quickly overwhelmed by the power, speed and brilliance of Williamson, and his fellow future lottery-pick teammates, who lit up St. John’s, 91-61, at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Williamson, the projected No. 1 pick in the next NBA Draft, finished with 29 points, on 13-of-17 shooting, with six rebounds, five steals and two blocks, as the Blue Devils (19-2, 7-1) shot 56 percent from the field, and won their 147th consecutive non-conference home game.

St. John’s star guard Shamorie Ponds had one of the worst games of his career, struggling against the brilliant on-ball defense of Tre Jones, and a series of swarming double-teams. After scoring 33 points to lead the Red Storm to a massive upset of Duke one year ago, the Brooklyn native was held scoreless in the first half, and finished with 11 points, on 3-of-11 shooting, and five turnovers.

St. John’s (16-6, 4-5) finishes its three-game road trip Tuesday at No. 10 Marquette, having lost five of its past seven games.

The Johnnies initially dared Duke to beat them from deep, and the Blue Devils happily obliged, hitting their first five shots — including three 3-pointers — to take a quick 12-5 lead. What looked to be the beginning of a rout on Tobacco Road instead became for awhile a forum for St. John’s to justify its incredible confidence.

Despite Duke hitting seven of its first eight shots, the Red Storm held a 21-19 lead seven minutes into the game, behind 12 early points from Clark, who picked up three first-half fouls, and was silent from then on. Heron, giving up two inches and 65 pounds to Williamson, did a remarkable defensive job on the most physically dominant player in the nation, helping limit him to two points through eight minutes.

Even with the Johnnies getting few easy looks, and one first-half free throw attempt, Ponds held the ball with his team down 35-33, and just over three minutes left in the first half. Then, came the long-awaited avalanche. Jones stripped Ponds, and finished the fastbreak. Williamson followed with a layup, then a putback, and then a steal, and fastbreak dunk.

Mike Krzyzewski slapped the floor. Williamson pumped his fist. St. John’s looked stunned, suddenly going to halftime trailing 47-37.

It took Ponds 10 seconds into the second half to score his first points. After that, Duke needed four minutes to crush any hope of a win that could carry St. John’s into the NCAA Tournament, going on a game-sealing 16-0 run.

The dunks continued. Cameron got crazier. The lead ballooned to 30.

At least the schedule won’t get any tougher.

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