(LJ Figueroa looks to find room along the baseline – @StJohnsBball)
In St. John’s first game in four years as a ranked team after earning the 24th spot in the Associated Press Top 25 Monday, they came close to vanquishing Villanova on the road, but fell short, 76-71, on Tuesday night.
Villanova, the defending National Champion, improved to 12-4 overall, 3-0 in Big East play, and they were led by Eric Paschall, who had 25 points on 8-14 from the field, including 3-5 from behind the arc, with 8 rebounds. Phil Booth had 23 points on 8-16 from the field and a superb 6-11 on three-pointers, with 7 rebounds and 4 assists. They were the only two Wildcats to score in double figures, combining to score 48 of their 76 points.
St. John’s, who fell to 14-2 overall and 2-2 in Big East play, was led by Shamorie Ponds, the National and Big East Player of the Week, who had 23 points on 7-17 from the field, including 4-11 on three-pointers, with 6 assists. LJ Figueroa had 14 points (5-8 FG, 4-6 threes), with 7 rebounds and an assist. Justin Simon had 13 points (6-14 FG), 9 assists, and 6 rebounds.
St. John’s led 39-34 at halftime, powered by 15 first half points from Ponds.
After St. John’s opened up a nine-point edge early in the second half, Villanova went on a 12-2 run capped by a Booth layup at the 14:27 mark. The Red Storm responded with a 9-0 run, capped by a four-point play for Ponds, to take a 59-51 lead with 10:30 left.
St. John’s led by five, 67-62, on a layup from Simon with 4:07 left, but Booth responded with back-to-back threes to give Villanova a 68-67 lead at the 2:36 mark.
That would turn into a 10-0 run for Villanova capped by Jermaine Samuels free throws with 1:04 left, and that gave them a 72-67 lead. A Clark jumper pulled St. John’s within three, 74-71, with 39 seconds left, but a pair of Saddiq Bay free throws with 9 seconds left sealed the win for the Wildcats.
St. John’s Head Coach Chris Mullin said of the game, “I thought we got off to a great start in the first 10-12 minutes and things came easy. Our giving up of offensive rebounds hurt us more than anything. Offensively, we missed shots and made some mistakes, but when you get a stop, give up an offensive rebound and kick out threes, it’s demoralizing. A game like this wasn’t going to get up in the high numbers and it was really going to come down to defense.”
On how St. John’s finished the game, “I thought we learned pretty well last game. We’ve had close games and finished them, but tonight we gave them too many easy looks at the basket and open drives. As I’ve said before, those offensive rebounds and kick out threes killed us. When guys are getting into that dribble mode, we have to get up on them and get them off the three-ball.”
Mullin said of Ponds, “I thought he wasn’t aggressive [in the second half]. I thought we had some matchups where he could have drove the ball to pull for a jump shot. On the flip side when he did drive it, we didn’t get to the line. Sometimes that has something to do with it, but when we have the mismatches we want to drive the ball and get to the line.”
Ponds said St. John’s played “kind of sloppy” in the last four minutes. “They took the lead and I felt like we should’ve taken the lead right back. It shouldn’t have been a close game in the first place anyway in my opinion.”
Mullin said of Villanova, “They’ve won two out of three championships. The way they play, the way they win, they have a championship pedigree. They’re definitely the team to beat in the league.”