In St. John's first National Invitation Tournament since 2003, the Red Storm faced a physical, grind-it-out battle with Memphis - a program accustomed to Big Dance berths.
However, St. John's showed that they were not ready for the season to end, fighting for boards and buckets through basic zone and junk defenses. Still, the sixth-seeded Storm (17-16) saw its best season under the Norm Roberts Era come to a dramatic and emotional close in a buzzer-beating heartbreaker to the third-seeded Tigers (24-9) 73-71 in the first round of the NIT.
Down by three points, 71-68, after a pair by Memphis' Wesley Witherspoon with 28.4 seconds remaining in the game, St. John's was in, what some may have thought to be, a near impossible situation considering the squad's history of having an inconsistent outside shot. However, what may have been a no-go for the Johnnies in the middle of conference play earlier this season, was just part of the game for Memphis, Tenn. native and St. John's redshirt senior forward Anthony Mason Jr.
Mason (17 points), who played in the last game of his collegiate career, coolly nailed a clutch 3-pointer off the dribble with 16.6 seconds left in the second half. The play knotted the game at 71, giving Memphis the next possession with only 9.9 seconds on the clock.
Out of a timeout, Witherspoon, who had scored Memphis' last five points, signaled for the ball, attacked the glass and tried to make a play off the bounce while being tracked by Mason. The 6-foot-9 Tiger hoisted a freakish, off-balance, left-handed swoop-shot that danced around the rim and hung onto the right side of the cylinder before tilting left and dropping through the net.
Witherspoon finished with a game-high tie of 18 points on 5-of-10 shooting from the field.
Following an offensive board and putback by St. John's junior swingman Paris Horne (nine points), teammate and leading scorer D.J. Kennedy knocked down a 3-pointer with 1:59 left in the second half to tie the game 65-all. But, on Memphis' next possession, Kennedy fouled Tigers' Doneal Mack (12 points).
Although Mack sunk 1-of-2 from the charity stripe, Kennedy took the lead back, 67-66, by draining both of his opportunities from the line at the 1:08 mark of the second half. Still, after scoring 30 of its 44 first-half points from the perimeter, Witherspoon answered with the only Memphis 3-pointer of the second half (1-of-7) and reversed the Red Storm's final lead of the contest.
Kennedy notched a game-high tie of 18 points on 6-of-12 shooting from the field, including an impressive 4-of-9 from the arc. Teammates Justin Brownlee and Malik Boothe chipped in 11 and 10 points, respectively.
Despite coming into the half, trailing by nine points, the squad was able to up its defensive ante at the perimeter and keep the game within three points or less for the majority of the second half. In fact, St. John's would, finally, take the lead for the first time in the second stanza, 60-59, on a 3-pointer by Mason assisted by Horne with 4:16 on the clock. The advantage was the first since the 5:15 mark of the first half when Boothe's trey lifted the Red Storm 32-31.
Memphis used a 60-percent first-half shooting average from the arc (10-of-13) to generate the largest point-differential of the game going into halftime. The Tigers led 44-35 at the break.
The Red Storm led by six points, 12-6, for the first time at the 14:36 mark of the first half, but Memphis answered with a 10-0 run. St. John's treated the dry-streak with some buckets, surging on a 10-0 run of its own to take a 22-16 advantage with 10:28 on the clock.
However, Memphis' hurricane of threes, which were led by Mack and Elliot Williams' (14 points) team-tie three made 3s a piece, gave the Tigers an unstoppable offensive rhythm. And, on the defensive end, Memphis used a 3-2 zone and a diamond-and-1 formation to clog the paint and tightly guard driving lanes. This effectively got the Tigers some stops by taking out the Johnnies' strength in the middle and forcing the Queens, N.Y. team to attempt a few ill-advised outside and midrange baskets.
Although both sides inflicted strong defenses, Memphis finished with a superior 51 percent from the field (24-of-47) and a strong 55 percent from the perimeter (11-of-20). Meanwhile, St. John's shot a solid 40 percent from the field (25-of-62) and 44 percent (11-of-25) from the perimeter.