Mustapha Heron is in the midst of his first season with St. John’s, and the past week showed how far he’s helped bring his new team.
The Auburn transfer was widely considered the second scoring option behind Shamorie Ponds coming into the season. He’s been exactly that with his most important contributions placing the Red Storm (19-7, 7-6 Big East) on the doorstep of the NCAA Tournament.
First, the junior forward led all scorers with 28 in an overtime win against Butler last week. Then, in front of a sold out Madison Square Garden, he played an instrumental role in a 19-point comeback win over No. 13 Villanova that solidified the Johnnies’ resume.
“At the end of the day, we’ve all been doing this for a while,” Heron said before to Sunday’s game. “Our team, anybody can get hot on any given night. If it’s not my night, it’s somebody else’s night.”
Heron, who on Monday was named the Big East Player of the Week, has been making it his night when it counts. His first 3-pointer cut Sunday’s deficit to five, and his second tied the game during the rally. He showed versatility in the final minutes of his 19-point game with a hard drive to the basket that drew a foul, sent him to the line and extended the lead.
That combined ability has saved St. John’s at times this season. With the Johnnies running a starting lineup that lacks size, Heron’s strength became a last defense against bigger opponents’ inside games. He hasn’t shied away from showing that muscle on either end.
“I had to play against big guys pretty much my whole career,” Heron said. “It’s a challenge that I accept. We switch so much that I guard from one through five.”
Heron, who is averaging 15.7 points and 4.9 rebounds this season, will be called upon again Wednesday when St. John’s faces Providence for the second time in less than two weeks. The Friars upset the Red Storm on Feb. 9 at the Garden while Heron sat out with a knee injury. Providence attacked inside and slowed down the game. If Heron has his way, Wednesday will net a different result, one earned from that experience and the one on Sunday.
“I think we’ve matured over the season,” Heron said. “We’ve taken the ups and downs, learning from each down.”