St. John’s may have punched its ticket for the NCAA Tournament on Sunday afternoon, thanks to a thrilling comeback that took out defending national champion and Big East front-runner Villanova and stirred Madison Square Garden in a way that reminded coach Chris Mullin of when he played in the program’s brightest days.
“It was as loud as I can remember — maybe louder,” Mullin said after St. John’s 71-65 win over the 13th-ranked Wildcats before a sellout crowd of 19,812. “I’m happy for them that they get to experience it. There’s nothing like that. There are some great places to play college basketball, but when you get a full Madison Square Garden against a championship team like Villanova? There’s nothing like that. It was awesome.
“And it helped us . . . took us to another level.”
Maybe more than one level. And the Red Storm (19-7, 7-6) really needed it after their flat play against the crisp-passing Wildcats created a 29-10 deficit just over 11 minutes into the game.
St. John’s started its road back with a 10-3 run to finish the first half, capped by a 70-footer at the buzzer by Justin Simon that made it 37-26.
“We were screaming the whole way into the locker room that we could come back after that,” Mustapha Heron said. “We had to do it on the defensive end and we were on a string tonight in that second half.”
After halftime, St. John’s defended, pressed and ran to complete the comeback. LJ Figueroa’s three-pointer with 7:28 left capped a 20-5 run that gave St. John’s its first lead at 54-53, and the Red Storm pulled away late.
With the St. John’s press unrelenting and the Garden crowd reaching a crescendo, Figueroa had eight points and Heron and Shamorie Ponds added six each in the dizzying run.
“When we’re pressing, I am on the top of the key and I see fear,” Figueroa said of the Wildcats’ response to the pressure. “When we press, it’s ‘go all-out.’ ”
Villanova went ahead 57-55, but Figueroa’s three-pointer with 3:51 left gave the Red Storm the lead for good.
It was the Red Storm’s biggest comeback since they overcame a 20-point deficit to beat DePaul in three overtimes on the road on March 5, 2010. And it was their first win over the Wildcats at the Garden in 12 tries dating to 2002.
Figueroa had 22 points, 12 rebounds and four steals. Heron had 19 points and Simon added 13 points, eight rebounds and four assists for the Red Storm, who held Villanova to 21 percent shooting in the second half.
St. John’s rallied even though Ponds struggled, shooting 2-for-14 and scoring 11 points. Marvin Clark II shot 2-for-10 and had six points (though it included the 1,000th of his career). “It’s not a game we win even a month ago,” Mullin said.
Joe Cremo had 14 points and Phil Booth 13 for the Wildcats.
St. John’s tournament resume includes some bad losses — at home to DePaul and Providence — but it will be hard to deny a bid to a team that has won three of four against Villanova (20-6, 11-2) and No. 10 Marquette. It also has “Q1” wins at Creighton and against VCU.
Asked if he thinks St. John’s belongs in the NCAA Tournament, Villanova coach Jay Wright replied, “I do. I definitely do. We’ve played a lot of good teams this year that are going to be tournament teams. I compare them to the Marquettes, the Florida States, the Michigans, Temple probably [and] Kansas. They can play with any of those teams.”
The MSG atmosphere could be a preview for the Seton Hall game on Saturday and the conference tournament.
“The energy was crazy in here. I’ve never played in anything like it,” Heron said. “It was fun. The fans came out, were amped, and we gave them what they deserved. It was a good team win and we worked hard for that one.”