Over and over, St. John's raises its game to meet the best competition. The latest: It was nearly flawless for a half Saturday against Villanova, No. 4 in the country, and was pretty good for a good while after that.
But over and over, St. John's can't quite raise its game high enough or long enough to beat the best competition. The latest: Villanova went on a dazzling, pressing, jamming 12-0 run midway through the second half and took an 81-71 win from the Red Storm at Madison Square Garden.
The aftermath was familiar, too: The other side had nothing but nice things to say about St. John's and St. John's had the feeling that one of these days, it will be good enough, long enough.
"I feel that every day," point guard Malik Boothe said long after St. John's had lost an 11-point first-half lead. "It's not like we played bad in the second half. We played with the same amount of energy. We just had that one lull, and that's when they took advantage."
St. John's coach Norm Roberts said: "You've got to fight through it. You play good defense, then Scottie Reynolds goes down and shoots a fadeaway 15-footer with a guy all over him. We get a layup under the basket and it spins in and out. It happens. That's the way basketball goes."
It often goes that way because some teams simply have more firepower and resources than others. A team that is 18-1, 7-0 in the Big East can turn to the likes of Reynolds, a senior guard, to make a basket while thoroughly covered by Malik Stith to make the score 62-52 with 8:33 left. That kind of team can find its footing with its press and can show some flair, such as the soaring dunk by freshman Isaiah Armwood off a feed from Reynolds to make it 67-57 with 4:45 left.
And a team that is 12-7, 2-5 often can't find 40 complete minutes of magic. For instance, Dwight Hardy ignited St. John's with 13 points in the first half but was scoreless in the second half until he made a couple of three-pointers after the game had been decided. It happens. It happens a lot to St. John's.
Reynolds diplomatically said: "We got into the one-and-one , so that made our job a lot easier. We knew we could drive the ball and not settle for jumpers."
"They made their runs; we made our runs," said Corey Fisher, Villanova's junior guard from the Bronx, who had 18 points. "We knew this was going to be a tough game."
"They played a hell of a game against us," Wright said. "They are a tough, tough team to play. They're going to get it going, no doubt."
But at some point, St. John's would prefer the opposition to be bitter and disappointed.
"Yeah, it's going to happen," Roberts said. "It has already happened a couple of times. That's why we have two wins. We've just got to keep fighting."