NEW YORK (AP) After building a large lead against a struggling team, Marquette narrowly avoided a short stay at the Big East Tournament.
Henry Ellenson had 27 points and 14 rebounds, Jajuan Johnson scored 23 points off the bench and Marquette held off a furious rally by feisty St. John's for a 101-93 victory in the first round Wednesday night.
Freshman guard Haanif Cheatham added 19 points for the seventh-seeded Golden Eagles (20-12). They advanced to play fifth-ranked and second-seeded Xavier in the quarterfinals Thursday night.
''We're going to pull out the AAU handbook on two games in one day, and see how the best advance in the platinum division,'' Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski said. ''They know who Xavier is. Xavier is a team that is capable of winning a national championship.''
Facing a last-place squad that managed only one conference victory all season, Marquette opened a 17-point bulge midway through the second half but then briefly fell behind in the final minutes. Ellenson and his teammates made just enough plays down the stretch to prevent an upset that would have all but ended their flickering hopes for an NCAA bid.
Christian Jones scored a career-high 29 points for the 10th-seeded Red Storm (8-24). After overhauling the roster from last year's NCAA Tournament team, they dropped 21 of their final 22 games in former star Chris Mullin's first season as coach.
''Much like our whole season, I was proud of my guys' effort. We had a tough first half. Regrouped, and just didn't give up,'' Mullin said. ''The results are frustrating. Don't get me wrong, that's a lot to deal with. But the future is bright. ... We know we have a lot of work to do.''
Hours after picking up his Big East freshman of the year trophy at Madison Square Garden, Ellenson shot 8 for 16 from the field and 9 of 10 at the foul line.
Johnson hit all eight of his free throws, and Marquette was 38 for 43 (88.4 percent) at the line.
''Very proud of our team,'' Wojciechowski said. ''This was an unusual situation for us because over 70 percent of our team had never set foot in this building, and we weren't able to have a shootaround today. So when they walked in they were wide-eyed. When we get the New York Knicks' locker room, and the guys are all taking pictures - there's a game to play here, fellas.''
The Golden Eagles had a 17-point cushion with less than 12 minutes left before St. John's began cutting into the deficit. Durand Johnson's 3-pointer pulled the Red Storm to 83-80 with 5:03 remaining, and fans in the scattered crowd chanted ''De-fense! De-fense!'' as St. John's tried to complete a stunning comeback at the Garden, one of its two home courts.
Ron Mvouika's open 3 put the Red Storm ahead 89-88 with 3:14 to play, their first lead since 11-9 early in the first half. But then Ellenson drained a 3 from the corner seconds later, and Marquette never trailed again.
Traci Carter stripped Jones for a steal that preserved a two-point lead, and Cheatham hit three of four free throws. Jajuan Johnson broke free and raced down court for a three-point play that made it 99-93 with 22.4 seconds left.
''It was a long game,'' said Ellenson, excited that his jersey hung in Carmelo Anthony's locker. ''That gives me a big smile. The people taking pictures of the locker, that was me.''
Jajuan Johnson had five of Marquette's 10 steals, four in the first half. He also had five rebounds and four assists. ''I thought he had one of his more mature games,'' Wojciechowski said. ''We wanted him to shake it up a little bit to see how he responded. And he responded in a big-time way.''
St. John's: Jones matched the school record for points in a Big East Tournament game, tying a mark set by Malik Sealy, Walter Berry and Mullin (twice). ... St. John's, the worst free-throw shooting team in the league at 63 percent, went 19 for 23 (82.6 percent) at the line. ... Both teams shot 50 percent from 3-point range and better than 54 percent from the floor. ... St. John's is 0-4 against Marquette in the Big East Tournament since 2007. ... St. John's has lost six straight Big East Tournament games since beating Rutgers in 2011.
Marquette: Since joining the Big East for the 2005-06 season, Marquette is the only program in the conference to reach the tournament quarterfinals every year. But the Golden Eagles have never advanced past the semifinals. ... Duane Wilson had three of Marquette's five steals in the first 5 minutes. Marquette led the Big East in steals at 7.8 per game and surpassed its average by halftime with eight. ... Cheatham was scoreless in 30 minutes during the regular-season finale, a loss at Butler. He had eight points in the first 4:51 of this one.
St. John's: Season is over.
Marquette: The Golden Eagles lost both matchups with Xavier this season by eight points.