Facing a shortage of offensive firepower since the season-ending suspension of leading scorer D'Angelo Harrison, St. John's fading finish reached its logical conclusion with a 66-53 loss to Villanova in the second round of the Big East Tournament Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden.
When the Red Storm played at Villanova in the conference opener on Jan. 2, they got 36 points from Harrison in a 98-86 overtime loss. This time around, coach Steve Lavin's team struggled to score while shooting 35.6 from the field.
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The loss marked the end for St. John's in the traditional Big East before the football-basketball split takes place. The question is whether it also was the end of the season for the Red Storm (16-15). An NIT bid seems questionable after a 1-7 finish, and a knowledgeable source said the NIT selection committee would view Harrison's absence as a negative. But St. John's can point to its strength of schedule, respectable 8-10 Big East record and strong New York presence.
St. John's players knew the path to the postseason would have been much easier with an upset of the Wildcats. Anticipating the wait before NIT bids go out Sunday night, JaKarr Sampson said, "We don't want to be in this position, but it happened like that. So, it's a lot of sitting around just waiting to see what we're going to do."
Villanova (20-12), on the other hand, likely secured an NCAA berth as it advanced to the quarterfinals at 7 Thursday night against second-seeded Louisville (26-5). Mouphtaou Yarou led Villanova with 18 points, on 9 of 10 shooting from the field, Ryan Arcidiacono had 15, and JayVaughn Pinkston totaled 12 points and nine rebounds. Phil Greene led St. John's with 16 points and Sampson added 13.
Although both teams had 17 turnovers, the Red Storm was outscored in points off turnovers, 26-13. That defined the difference between the two teams.
"I thought it was Villanova's ability to convert some high-percentage shots and our inability to convert at the rim and in the paint," Lavin said. "Even with no one around us, we just didn't put it in the hole."
Villanova jumped to an early 18-6 lead as St. John's went 6:14 without scoring before Sampson ended the drought. The Red Storm surged back to tie it at 24 at halftime and eventually take a 31-28 second-half lead.
Big East rookie of the year Sampson, who had a 5-for-18 night, felt the weight of carrying the team. "I felt like I had a lot of heat on me," Sampson said. "I just wasn't hitting shots I normally make."
A layup by Yarou followed by a three from Arcidiacono began a 19-7 Villanova run for a 50-40 lead that never was threatened. "St. John's lost their leading scorer," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "You're not going to just go find one. They're not as explosive without him on the floor."
While St. John's worries about an NIT bid, Wright breathed a sigh of relief. "I feel real good," Wright said of an NCAA bid. "There was a chance we could lose this one, and it would be a long week at home waiting."
That's St. John's problem now.