NEW YORK (AP) — 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.
The teams scuffled on the postgame handshake line and had to be separated as the crowd stood for the unexpected fracas.
The Musketeers (28-4) dominated in the 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. Xavier coach Mack sternly pointed Bluiett toward the huddle, then smacked him on the rear for a good job.
Gates followed with another 3-pointer and Sean 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.
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.
Mack was voted Big East coach of the year and this season became the school’s career leader in victories when he won his 203rd game.
St. John’s lost 73-68 to Xavier in January that capped an 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 tourney 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.
St. John’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.
St. John’s: St. John’s could have a promising future under coach Chris Mullin.
Xavier: Xavier will likely earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament if it wins it all in New York.
St. John’s: The Red Storm will regroup.
Xavier: Xavier is looking to win its first Big East Tournament title. Xavier’s best finish in four previous tourneys was a loss in the 2015 title game.