St. John’s Stuns Villanova, Earns Signature Win

(LJ Figueroa goes up for a layup – @StJohnsBball)

The St. John’s Red Storm reversed an early 19-point deficit to stun the Villanova Wildcats, 71-65, on Sunday night at Madison Square Garden.

This was the signature win that St. John’s was waiting all season for, as they improved to 19-7 overall and 7-6 in Big East Conference play. This puts them close to sewing up a bid in the NCAA Tournament.

St. John’s was led by LJ Figueroa, who had 22 points, including 16 in the second half, on 6-16 from the field, including 3-6 from behind the arc, and 7-8 from the free throw line. He also notched 12 rebounds to give him a double-double, and added 4 steals and 2 assists.

Mustapha Heron also had a huge second half, in which he scored 14 of his 19 points. He shot 5-9 overall, including 2-4 on three-pointers, along with 5 rebounds, an assist, and a steal.

St. John’s Head Coach Chris Mullin said of what this win means for his program in his fourth year at the helm, “There’s been natural progression, which is nice. I’m really happy for our players. … I’m happy they got to experience a night like tonight. Madison Square Garden, people can talk about it, they tell you about it, but when you go out and do it and do it in a big time game where you need clutch performances up and down the line between defense, offense, making shots, and making free throws. … There are a lot of resilient guys [in our locker room]. I tell people all the time, they are not only good guys, they work hard, they do the right things to win and it doesn’t always come out that way. As far as preparation and mindset, togetherness is always there. I think it showed tonight.”

Villanova Head Coach Jay Wright was asked if St. John’s is a Tournament team, and he said, “I do, I definitely do because we’ve played a lot of good teams this year, and I would compare them to Florida State, Michigan, Temple probably, Kansas. They can play with anyone.

Villanova, the defending national champion ranked 13th in the nation, came out firing, as they raced out to a 20-8 lead seven minutes in, and eventually, 29-10, on an Eric Paschall three-pointer at the 8:50 mark of the first half.

The sequence that epitomized the first half came around the 5:00 mark. Villanova’s Collin Gillespie missed a three-pointer and St. John’s Shamorie Ponds got the rebound, and fired a pass to the other end, which Justin Simon was late to get to it, and Gillespie, who hustled back down court, stole it.

Villanova maintained their lead down the stretch of the first half, as Joe Cremo drained a three to make it 37-20 with 1:26 remaining.

St. John’s then got a pair of free throws from Figueroa and one from Justin Simon, and they also got a few stops on the defensive end.

When Villanova’s Saddiq Bey missed a three with 2 seconds remaining, Simon got the rebound, and from his own end, he fired up a long shot as time expired, and it went in, cutting Villanova’s lead to just 11, at 37-26.

Instead of going into halftime down, St. John’s went in on a high despite being held to their lowest point total in the first half all season, 26, on just 31 percent shooting (9-29) from the field.

In the second half, St. John’s picked up right where they left off, as Marvin Clark II drained a three to pull them within eight, 37-29. That gave Clark 1,000 points in his college career.

Villanova responded, and they went back up 14 points, 48-34, on a free throw from Cremo at the 12:46 mark.

St. John’s then came right back, as Ponds drained a pair of free throws, then they forced Gillespie to turn it over, and Figueroa got the steal and a layup to make it 48-38.

Villanova called a timeout, and Wright proceeded to give it to the referees, and he received a technical foul. He said of that afterwards, “We got trapped at halfcourt and I thought it was a blatant foul (on Figueroa) and they didn’t call it. I just felt like I needed to say it. It hurt us, it definitely hurt us. It happens sometimes.”

The Red Storm kept the momentum going, as a three from Heron at 8:25 tied the game at 51, which capped a 17-3 run at that point. and

Figueroa then drained a three of his own to give St. John’s their first lead of the day at 54-53 with 7:28 remaining.

Villanova then took a 57-55 lead on a Phil Booth layup at the 4:40 mark.

Figueroa responded with yet another three-pointer to make it 58-57, and that started an 8-0 run for the Red Storm.

Villanova went nearly four minutes without a point, until Booth got to the line and made a pair of free throws with 50 seconds left.

This was no doubt St. John’s best defensive effort of the season, as they held Villanova to just 28 points in the second half on just 20.8 percent shooting, or 5-24. That’s right, just five baskets for the Wildcats in the second half, and three of them were from behind the arc, where they were 3-15, or 20 percent.

St. John’s outscored ‘Nova 45-28 in the second half, while shooting 37 percent (10-27) overall, including a superb 7-13 from behind the arc and 90 percent (18-20) from the charity stripe.

This was just Villanova’s second loss in Big East action, as they fell to 11-2, just ahead of Marquette (10-2) for the top spot in the conference. Their overall record is 20-6.

Wright said of the game, “Great college basketball atmosphere, Garden was awesome today, and it was really fun being a part of it, somewhat. Great energy in there, just great Big East basketball. First half we were good, and the second half, they took us out of it, just took us out of everything. We couldn’t execute any offense, a lot of our turnovers (14) and bad shots turned into transition for them, and they scored a lot in transition. I think that was the game. It was really a tale of two halfs. Second half, they just notched up the intensity defensively, we just couldn’t execute, couldn’t get anything.”

This was a day the superstars were held in check. St. John’s Shamorie Ponds was held to 11 points (2-14 FG, 0-4 threes, 7-8 FTs), along with 5 rebounds and 3 assists.

Ponds’ teammates stepped up, and Mullin said of what it meant to earn a victory in this fashion, “It says we’ve got much better players around him, and two of them are right here [Mustapha Heron and LJ Figueroa]. I thought these two guys had phenomenal games, big time baskets. A lot of them were playing off Shamorie’s passing or he was initiating offense. I thought Justin [Simon] did a good job getting the tempo going. … That’s not a game we win, maybe even a month ago. These guys have continued to improve individually, but I think they feel better about themselves as a group. You see that on the defensive end first and foremost. Offensively, they’ve always been good about sharing the ball. … Sometimes it takes a little bit of time to figure out where those shots are coming from, but their IQ is good. I know they’re trying to do the right thing. It just takes a little time to figure it out. I thought Shamorie did a good job of maintaining his playmaking and not forcing it.”

Villanova’s dynamic duo of Phil Booth and Eric Paschall never got going enough for them to get this win. Booth had 13 points (2-11 FG, 0-6 threes, 9-12 FT) , 3 rebounds, and 3 assists, and he committed 3 turnovers. Paschall had 11 points (2-11 FG, 1-7 threes, 6-6 FT) and 14 rebounds, which gave him a double-double, along with 4 assists, but he committed 5 turnovers.

Mullin said of the challenge of defending Villanova, “[Eric Paschall and Phil Booth] are the biggest focus for us defensively. The big thing, and it’s hard to do, is to get them off the three and maintain contact and rely on your help. I thought our guys did a great job. We have some really long, athletic guys. They were all able to play the guy off the dribble and then keep some connections with the guy and force him into two’s. I thought we did a good job after that first half of really maintaining what we talked about defensively. To me the impressive part was we got down and found the game plan we talked about. We were able to relocate that and get it done.”

Figueroa said of what their defensive pressure does to the other team, “When we press, I’m at the top of the key. I see fear in the other players. I know my teammates have my back no matter what. Whether we’re down 10 or 20 or up 10 or 20, it doesn’t matter. When we pressure the basketball, we go all out and leave everything on the court.”

On whether the defensive pressure was the turning point of the game,Figueroa said, “One hundred percent. It was our defense. Our defense came together in the second half and did whatever it took to get the win. We had good leaders that led us in the second half. It was a great win.”

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