The lifeless St. John's team that was a virtual no-show the previous week at Georgetown was replaced Saturday afternoon at Madison Square Garden by a talented group that played with energy at both ends of the court and had No. 8 Villanova reeling from repeated counterpunches in the second half.
But just as it did a month ago against No. 2 Syracuse at the Garden, the Red Storm failed to finish down the stretch and lost the chance for a signature victory to hang its hat on. The Wildcats ended a stretch of 10 straight lead changes with an eight-point surge to take control late in a 74-67 victory.
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"We defended and we competed, but we didn't finish," St. John's coach Steve Lavin said. "Ultimately, [Villanova] made enough plays, got enough buckets on the interior, got themselves to the foul line and had some timely three-point daggers . . . I thought our kids played together. We just didn't convert down the stretch."
The Wildcats (15-1, 4-0 Big East) were led by JayVaughn Pinkston's 15 points and 10 rebounds and got 14 points from reserve Josh Hart, 13 from Ryan Arcidiacono and 10 each from Darrun Hilliard and Daniel Ochefu. They outrebounded the Red Storm 48-39 and won the game at the foul line, shooting 31-for-40 compared to 19-for-24 for St. John's.
St. John's (9-6, 0-3) held Villanova to 35.2 percent shooting from the field and got 22 points from D'Angelo Harrison, 12 points from freshman point guard Rysheed Jordan and 10 points and nine rebounds from JaKarr Sampson, who was not in the starting lineup at Georgetown and played a mere 18 minutes.
The Red Storm outscored Villanova 38-28 in the paint but missed several easy shots while shooting 34.3 percent.
Neither walk-on Khadim Ndiaye nor seldom-used backup Felix Balamou, both of whom started at Georgetown, played a second against Villanova.
Harrison sparked an early 12-1 run with six points for an 18-13 lead on the way to a 33-31 halftime edge.
"We practiced really hard, and we are just trying to find an identity," Sampson said. "We want to be a tough team, a team that plays with emotion, and you saw that in the Georgetown game, we came out with no emotion or energy at all. That is not us."
Jordan, a Philadelphia native, shot 1-for-7 in the first half. He shot 5-for-7 in the second half, including the layup that gave the Red Storm a 56-55 lead with 7:43 left.
"They use him really well," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "He had that period in the second half where we mixed up some coverage on him."
But the Wildcats broke into the clear with an 8-0 run that ended with a right-wing three-pointer by Hilliard -- Wright called it a "huge play" -- for a 63-56 lead with 5:04 left.
St. John's shot 3-for-10 the rest of the way and never got closer than four points.
"This week, we made progress in practice, and I think it carried to the game," Lavin said. "We have to build from there."