It had been a rough winter at St. John’s University for the men’s basketball team, coached by former NBA all-star and Hall of Famer Chris Mullin, until recently.
But, St. John’s pulled off a pair of stunning upsets earlier this month, winning against Duke, 81-77, on Feb. 3 at Madison Square Garden, in New York, and then claiming another four-point thriller, beating Villanova on the road, 79-75, four days later.
“It has been real fun. We have been enjoying it and taking it one game at a time,” said Tariq Owens, a former standout at St. Vincent Pallotti High in Laurel who is a junior redshirt for the Red Storm. “We have had our tough times this year and broke through that.”
The win over Villanova, ranked No. 1 in the country at the time, marked the first time in Division I history that a team with at least 10 conference losses and no wins knocked off the top-ranked team.
So what made the difference in the two upsets?
“Really, just limiting our mental mistakes,” said Owens, a native of Utica, New York, who grew up in Odenton. “Our margin of error is really small. A lot of games we lost by a few points or less.”
Taking care of the ball and getting loose balls at the end of the games was critical in the recent stretch.
Owens, a 6-foot-11 forward, certainly did his part in the non-conference win over Duke and the Big East upset of head coach Jay Wright and his Wildcats in Philly, just three days after the Eagles won the Super Bowl.
Owens started and had 17 points and four rebounds in 37 minutes against Duke and then had nine points and nine rebounds against Villanova, while playing all but one minute. He then had nine points in a win on Feb. 10 against Marquette.
“Tariq is probably our most important player. The only reason I take him off the bench is because he can play any position,” Mullin told the New York Post last fall, before deciding to make him a starter. “He can go in [as a sub] and our lineup is fine.”
He played in the first 27 games this season, with 20 starts, and is averaging 29.6 minutes, 8.5 points and 6.0 rebounds per contest, while leading the team with a field goal percentage of .525. The Red Storm is 14-13 overall and 3-11 in the Big East after beating Marquette and DePaul.
After losing 11 straight games, the Red Storm has won four in a row.
Last season, he averaged 18.8 minutes and 5.2 points per contest and led the Big East in blocks with 2.2 per contest. Now, he has upped his game for Mullin.
“He is great, I love it. He is a good coach,” Owens said, of the third-year coach and former St. John’s star. “He is a new coach; he is learning. He played the game of basketball at a very high level. It is really great playing for him. He leads by example.”
After playing at Pallotti, he spent a post-graduate year at Mt. Zion Prep School in Baltimore, where he was coached by Rodrick Harrison.
He played AAU ball for the Baltimore’s Finest program and then began his college career at Tennessee, but he transferred to St. John’s after one season.
“The transfer process was cool. I learned a lot of little things” sitting out the 2015-16 season, he said. “It was really just hard sitting out that whole year. I am like a gym rat. Our coaches like being in the gym with me.”
And it also helps when a team posts some impressive wins.
Hoop notes: Laurel resident and Reservoir High graduate Kayla Wilson is a freshman guard on the women’s basketball team at Division III Frostburg State. She became a starter Jan. 24 against York College and scored at least 10 points in each of her first five starts before scoring just four on Saturday in a loss at No. 24 Marymount in Virginia.
Former Pallotti standout D’Ondre Stockman was averaging 10.9 points per game through Feb. 9 for Fairmont State, which lost in the Division II national title game last season. The guard was fourth on the team in scoring even though he made just two starts.