VILLANOVA, Pa. — St. John’s went from nationally ranked to just plain ol’ rank over the course of 40 minutes Tuesday night against defending national champion Villanova.
The Red Storm looked like a team that had been underrated with a No. 24 ranking as it roared out against the Wildcats and went up by 12 points in just a little more than three minutes. And it continued to look good as it repelled Villanova run after Villanova run in the first half and the second. But in the final four minutes, St. John’s was unrecognizably bad as it blew a five-point lead and suffered a 76-71 Big East defeat at Finneran Pavilion.
Justin Simon’s driving layup with 4:07 to play gave St. John’s a 67-62 lead. From that point on, St. John’s made just one of nine shots and allowed the Wildcats to grab a pair of costly offensive rebounds as the lead evaporated quickly.
Villanova had led for only 22 seconds before Phil Booth hit three-pointers on consecutive trips. His second, with 2:36 to play, put the ’Cats up 68-67, and they would not trail after that. St. John’s glimpsed Villanova’s championship calm as it kept getting to the free-throw line and making the big plays down the stretch.
“We were kind of sloppy,” said Shamorie Ponds, who had 23 points and six assists but a quiet second half.
“I feel like they took the lead and we were supposed to take the lead right back. It never should have been a close game in the first place, in my opinion . . . We got off to a great start and let it slip away. There were a lot of mistakes down the stretch. That can’t happen on the road.”
“We tried to keep our composure,” said LJ Figueroa, who had 14 points. “It was a tough road loss. We had the lead the whole game and the last couple minutes we fell apart a little bit.”
Coach Chris Mullin thought the Villanova offensive rebounds made the biggest difference. One came with St. John’s within 68-67. Jermaine Samuels’ board allowed Booth to get fouled and make 1 of 2 free throws. The other came with it still a one-possession game at 74-71 with less than 30 seconds left. Saddiq Bey failed to convert an alley-oop pass, but came down with the ball with about 10 seconds left. Bey made two free throws and that was it.
“Offensive rebounds hurt us more than anything,” Mullin said. “You can miss shots and make mistakes, but when you get a stop, give up an offensive rebound and they get fouled, it’s demoralizing.”
Mustapha Heron had 14 points for the Storm (14-2, 2-2). Eric Paschall scored 25 points and Booth 23 for Villanova (12-4, 3-0).
If anything, this game may show that the road to a Big East championship still goes through Villanova. As Mullin said: “The way they play, the way they win. They have that championship pedigree. That’s the team to beat in the league, no question.”
Yet in no way does St. John’s see itself as anything other than a contender after this.
“The game is over. It’s time to move on,” Mullin said. “We’re good. We play them again. They come into New York, so it’s all good.”
“This is anybody’s league right now,” Ponds said.
Figueroa, speaking of the chance to play Villanova again on Feb. 17 at the Garden, said: “I definitely can’t wait for it.”