Defending national champion Villanova was ripe for the picking Saturday. St. John’s just couldn’t get up high enough to pluck it.
The third-ranked Wildcats were very much off their game. Usually sure-handed, they committed 20 turnovers. Consistently accurate from three-point range, they couldn’t get their shots to fall. Their two senior leaders, Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins, were having their lowest-scoring and worst-shooting performances of the season, respectively.
But St. John’s couldn’t capitalize on what seemed like the perfect setup for a major shocker in front of a big crowd of 17,309 at Madison Square Garden. The Red Storm came up small in too many places and ended up with a 70-57 Big East loss.
St. John’s (8-11, 2-4) actually seemed to be seizing the moment early and took a six-point lead with 7:26 left in the first half. Villanova (17-1, 5-1) pushed past the Red Storm before the break, but St. John’s got within 53-48 on Shamorie Ponds’ three-pointer with 6:58 to play. The Wildcats responded with a 13-1 burst as the Red Storm went nearly five minutes without a field goal.
“We played them good the first half, but then the second half, they just attacked us and we just backed down,” Ponds said. “They just punched us and we couldn’t recover from the punch they gave us.”
“That was an example of a young, hungry team playing harder than a veteran team and wanting it a little more,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “They took it to us. We just have veteran players that made plays.”
St. John’s defended well enough and played with the re quisite intensity but executed dismally. In the end, the Red Storm actually shot worse than Villanova, committed 17 turnovers and gave up 13 offensive rebounds that the Wildcats turned into 14 big points.
Since stunning wins at Syracuse and over then-No. 13 Butler, then a road victory over DePaul, St. John’s has lost four straight. This stretch, in which the Red Storm faced three nationally ranked teams in four games, is over. St. John’s will host DePaul tomorrow at Carnesecca Arena.
Asked if his team had let a golden opportunity slip away, Red Storm coach Chris Mullin replied: “I don’t really feel like things slip away — you go out there and perform.
“A lot of our miscues were somewhat self-inflicted, so maybe there was some frustration. The effort was good. When you get a team like that to miss shots and turn the ball over 20 times and you don’t capitalize? That’s frustrating.”
Ponds had 13 points, Marcus LoVett 12 and Bashir Ahmed 11, but they combined to shoot 35 percent (12-for-34).
Donte DiVincenzo had 19 points off the bench to lead Villanova. Hart had a season-low 11 and Jenkins had 10 despite 1-for-10 shooting.
Late in the game, Villanova got its act together and scored on seven straight possessions, including the 13-1 run. Meanwhile, the Red Storm went 0-for-5 with a turnover and one made free throw in a seven-possession stretch.
St. John’s three top scorers — LoVett, Ponds and Ahmed — are in their first college season, and Mullin said there are going to be “growing pains” like this loss.
“You’ve seen what their best is and they’re going to get more consistent with that. They’re going to be a hell of a team,” Wright said of the Red Storm. “St. John’s has a lot of guys that are first-year guys. You do this against St. John’s the next time you play? You probably get beat.”