NEW YORK — Chris Mullin was at a loss.

He had used the word ‘lethargic,’ to describe his St. John’s Red Storm’s play in the first half of a 69-59 win over Iona in the second game of the Holiday Festival on Sunday at Madison Square Garden, and was asked if he could explain why that was.

“You tell me why those 18-to-21 year olds do things,” Mullin said. “I don’t know why I did it. I don’t know why my kids do it. I don’t know.”

What the school’s one-time legendary player turned coach does know is that Shamorie Ponds scored 16 points to lead five St. John’s players in double-figure scoring. Justin Simon added 15 points. Tariq Owens, Marvin Clark II and Bashir Ahmed each finished with 12 points. Ahmed also grabbed 11 rebounds.

The Red Storm improved to 9-2 overall with a fourth win in its last five games.

“It wasn’t an artistic game,” Mullin said. “It wasn’t a pretty game.”

That is an assessment Iona coach Tim Cluess may agree with after his team dropped to 5-5 with its first loss in five games.

Deyshonee Much led the Gaels with 15. EJ Crawford finished with 12, and Roland Griffin added 11.

“We didn’t have one of our best nights,” Cluess said.

The Red Storm used a 15-4 run in the first 4:35 of the second half to turn a 25-25 tie into a 40-29 advantage. Following a timeout, the Johnnies continued to grow their lead as Marvin Clark II and Simon each converted layups, and Ponds converted two flagrant foul free throws after Roland Martin knocked him to the ground as he attempted a dunk.

Following Ponds’ driving layup with 11:12 left, St John’s led by 20, 52-32.

“You can’t just hand points to a team of that level and hand possessions to a team of that level,” Cluess said. “Especially when they came out playing well to start the second half.

“You can’t allow those things to happen.”

Pivotal to St. John’s cause was its defense. The Red Storm forced seven turnovers and had four shot blocks in the second half, fueling their transition game.

So, too, did Iona’s suboptimal shooting, as the Gaels misfired on 21 of 34 shots in the second half.

“Our defense has been great,” Mullin said. “I thought we were really good.”

Still, Iona found enough offense in a span of 5:54 to slice the 20-point deficit to 58-51 after McGill’s jumper. But a Simon 3-point play pushed the lead back to 10. Clark’s layup and an Owens two-handed putback dunk on the next two possessions essentially decided the outcome.

“We know what we have to do,” Owens said. “We have to pick it up defensively and, offensively, we just have to make the easy ones and make the easy plays down the stretch.”

BIG PICTURE

IONA: Prior to Sunday’s showcase game at Madison Square Garden, Iona averaged 77.4 points per game, and 82.4 points in its five wins.

ST. JOHN’S: With one game remaining until Big East conference play begins, it is fair to wonder about the Red Storm’s perimeter shooting. Or the potential lack thereof. St. John’s entered Sunday’s game shooting 42 percent from the field and 34.1 percent from 3. Against the suburban Westchester, N.Y. school, though, St. John’s made just 23 of 61 shots from the field, and missed all 12 3-point attempts.

NOTABLE

IONA: The game was only the 10th all-time meeting between the programs. The Gaels had dropped six of the previous nine, but did win the last game, a 70-57 rout of St. Johnson Dec. 27, 1995.

ST. JOHN’S: The Red Storm improved to 424-292 all-time at Madison Square Garden with the win.

UP NEXT:

IONA: Travels to Holy Cross on Tuesday night.

ST. JOHN’S: Hosts Saint Joseph’s on Wednesday afternoon.