St. John's forward Aaron Wheeler reacts after losing to Villanova...

St. John's forward Aaron Wheeler reacts after losing to Villanova in the second round of the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden on Thursday. Credit: Noah K. Murray

St. John’s NCAA Tournament dreams died hard on Thursday night.

The Red Storm, on a quest to win the Big East championship with four wins in four nights, turned in perhaps their most intense and emotional performance of the season against eighth-ranked and No. 2-seeded Villanova, only to suffer their most painful loss when Brandon Slater made two free throws with 2.8 seconds left after collecting an offensive rebound.

The anguish of the 66-65 Big East quarterfinal loss at the Garden was plain on Julian Champagnie’s teary face.

"Everybody can see our faces — it’s rough," he said. "I feel like the guys, we gave it our all. And I think we didn’t want to go out like this. We played hard and I wouldn’t change it for [anything]."

St. John’s (17-15) was something to behold for the first 25 minutes of the game, playing taut defense and getting great leadership from Champagnie and Posh Alexander.

The Red Storm held a 17-point lead with a little more than 15 minutes to play, but for anyone who has watched them this season, an upset wasn’t going to come without overcoming adversity.

It came quickly. Villanova coolly put together a 24-6 run over the next seven minutes, helped enormously by Alexander going to the bench for 3:40 with his third foul. When Alexander left, the margin was 14. When he returned, it was 46-45. He committed his fourth foul with 8:11 left, and Caleb Daniels made a pair of free throws for the Wildcats’ first lead at 51-50.

St. John’s took a 65-64 lead on a three-point play by Stef Smith with 2:08 left. After Slater’s free throws, Smith missed a half-court heave at the final buzzer.

"There’s been a lot of these type of games where it’s close and it just comes down to one play that changed the outcome for a win or loss," Smith said. "We were just thinking about how we can make that one extra play. And we came up short today. We didn’t do it."

Villanova (24-7) will face third-seeded UConn in Saturday’s 9 p.m. semifinal. Top-seeded Providence will meet fourth-seeded Creighton in the 6:30 p.m. semifinal.

St. John’s will wait to see if it receives a bid to the NIT or another national postseason tournament.

Champagnie had 23 points and 10 rebounds, Smith scored 10 points and Alexander had nine points and five assists for St. John’s. Daniels had 19 points, Justin Moore 15 and Collin Gillespie 14 for Villanova.

St. John’s did have a couple of chances to increase the one-point lead in the last two minutes. One possession ended in a turnover by Aaron Wheeler and the other ended with Champagnie having an open shot from the corner barely deflected.

On the final Villanova possession, Jermaine Samuels’ drive was blocked by Wheeler. Slater came up with it and was fouled by Champagnie while trying to get to the basket.

"[Villanova] hung in there, hung in there," Red Storm coach Mike Anderson said. "I guess their experience kicked in gear at the end. But I thought our guys . . . we were there. And we know a lead against a Villanova team in the second half, they’re going to make a run. They have been there; they’ve done that."

It was St. John’s ninth loss this season in overtime or by six or fewer points.

"I thought our guys left their heart, guts and everything on the floor," Anderson said. "And we just came up a little short."

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