NEW YORK (AP) — Sean O’Mara put an exclamation point on Xavier’s runaway victory with a two-handed jam in the final seconds and Paul Scruggs cupped a hand to his right ear as the school band played the team off a winner.
The Musketeers never let up in the final minutes, crushing 3s and dunking with such ease that it ticked off a sore St. John’s. The Red Storm’s Ahmed Bashir popped off at Tyrique Jones in the handshake line and it quickly disintegrated into shoving and shouting. The scuffle was busted up by players and assistants from both teams as the crowd stood for a better view of the unexpected fracas.
St. John’s coach Chris Mullin, a native New Yorker, simply said, “I didn’t see anything.”
Xavier could have ended it with one word like kids do when they tussle on the playground: scoreboard.
Trevon Bluiett scored 27 points, Kaiser Gates had 16 and No. 3 Xavier looked every bit the top seed in the Big East Tournament in an 88-60 win over St. John’s on Thursday.
“I’m not going to throw anybody under the bus,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said. “A couple of guys didn’t want to shake hands.”
The Big East reviewed tape of the scuffle and security footage to determine if the action spilled into the locker rooms. Big East senior associate commissioner Stu Jackson said he does not plan on taking any disciplinary action.
Xavier (28-4) flexed its muscle in a dominant second half on the Red Storm’s home court at Madison Square Garden. Xavier plays the winner of the Providence-Creighton game in a tourney semifinal Friday. Providence beat Xavier 81-72 on Jan. 6.
Xavier lost only three times during conference play to take its first Big East title and the top seed into MSG. The Musketeers snapped out of a sluggish first half in a hurry in the second to win for 13th time in their last 14 games.
Bluiett buried a 3 from the top of the arc for a 45-35 lead. Bluiett was high-fived by his teammates, who bounced around him headed into a timeout. Mack sternly pointed Bluiett toward the huddle, then smacked him on the rear for a good job.
Gates followed with another 3-pointer and O’Mara’s block led to Quentin Goodin’s fast-break bucket to help the Musketeers finally build some separation. Gates and JP Macura hit consecutive 3s for a 56-42 lead and the Musketeers showed again why they expect to play deep in March. Xavier has reached the Sweet 16 six times in the last 10 years and set a school record in victories this season.
“If we’re a one seed, two seed, we were an 11 seed last year and made it to the Elite Eight, so we know firsthand that it never really matters,” Bluiett said.
The only hiccup: Xavier ended Villanova’s four-year run of regular-season Big East titles but lost twice to the Wildcats. The potential for a third game looms in the tourney final Saturday.
“Our focus really isn’t on Villanova right now,” Gates said.
St. John’s lost 73-68 to Xavier in January, which capped a 0-11 conference start. The Red Storm (16-17) beat then-No. 4 Duke and followed with a stunning win over then-No. 1 Villanova in Philadelphia that straightened out their season. They went 5-3 down the stretch and knocked off Georgetown in the tournament opener.
About 12 hours after knocking off Georgetown, the Red Storm came out with another upset on their minds. Justin Simon waved his arms and exhorted the home crowd to get louder on a 3 that gave St. John’s a two-point lead. Xavier let St. John’s hang around in large part because it missed its first six 3-pointers. But the Musketeers hit two straight to spark a 10-0 run and take a 33-29 lead into halftime.
Marvin Clark II led St. John’s with 18 points.
The Red Storm’s Tariq Owens was hit with three fouls in the first half and Shamorie Ponds, who returned from an abdominal strain to score 26 points against the Hoyas, was scoreless in the first half.
Mullin refused to blame the quick tournament turnaround for St. John’s lethargic second half.
“That’s what you get for coming in ninth,” he said.
St. John’s: The Red Storm could have a promising future Mullin.
“I think having that 11-game stretch of losing, losing, losing, losing, I think most people would have cowered and tucked their tail and ran. I’m proud of our team for fighting back and making, salvaging something out of the season,” Clark said.
Xavier: The Musketeers will likely earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament if they win it all in New York.
Ponds, a sophomore guard, could leave for the NBA. Mullin said he has yet to talk to Ponds about his future.
St. John’s: The Red Storm will regroup.
Xavier: The Musketeers are looking to win their first Big East Tournament title. Xavier’s best finish in four previous tourneys was a loss in the 2015 title game.
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AP freelance writer Matt Sugam contributed to this report.