When the tempo finally settled, after minutes of frenetic, end-to-end basketball that left heads swiveling in the stands and the scoreboard swaying back and forth, Tre Wood cupped the ball five feet behind the three-point line and took a breath.
The shot clock ticked below 10. The O'Connell defense inched up. St. John's held an eight-point lead but the Knights were pressing and penetrating and threatening to make one last fourth-quarter push. But Wood stayed calm, dribbling once, twice, then bursting through a parted defense and scooping in a layup as the shot clock expired. That accounted for two of the point guard's 14 fourth-quarter points, giving him 20 for the game, as No. 7 St. John's held on for a 73-62 win over No. 16 O'Connell (9-4) in Northwest Washington on Sunday afternoon.
"I just felt like we needed to get to the rim more, that's where our success was coming from," Wood said. "Toward the end of the third quarter and then into the fourth, we really attacked the rim how we wanted to."
The game was destined to be decided by guards. Wood and Morsell, a high-major target, are complemented by a handful of young, talented players in the St. John's (9-4) backcourt. Johnson is joined by senior shooting guard Matt Becht, a Mount St. Mary's commit and arguably the Washington area's best three-point shooter. This made for a high-paced game that was knotted after the first quarter and tilting in the Cadets' favor after their 11-3 run to start the second.
That was all the separation the Cadets needed, as they went into the fourth quarter holding an eight-point advantage. Johnson tried to will O'Connell back with downhill drives into the paint, resulting in 11 fourth-quarter points. The Cadets countered the Knights' full-court press with their own attacks of the rim. Then Johnson shook loose for another lay-in. Then Wood answered with a three. Then the two guards, AAU teammates in the summer but now jawing at each other after each make, traded baskets once more.
And when the game slowed a second time, two minutes after Wood's smooth lay-in bumped the Cadets' lead to 10, it was the St. John's point guard standing at the free throw line in a quieted gym. The game was now his to seal, and Wood sunk two free throws to do just that.
"Tre showed a lot of grit, a lot of leadership," St. John's Coach Pat Behan said. "But in this league, it's all about what you do in February, not January. So we have a lot more to do."