Tariq Owens and Bashir Ahmed consistently were the first guys on the floor for every loose ball. Justin Simon never stopped trying to push the ball. Shamorie Ponds did his best to answer every time St. John’s gave up a basket.
St. John’s cannot match No. 1-ranked Villanova in experience or skill, but the Red Storm played the Wildcats tough for the full 40 minutes in a 78-71 Big East loss before 17,123 on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden.
St. John’s took a big hit with the news this past week that second-leading scorer Marcus LoVett will not come back this season from the left knee injury he suffered Nov. 26, but the moral victory counts for nothing. St. John’s (10-8, 0-6) — which received a career-high 37 points from Ponds, a sophomore — has a six-game losing streak and will face No. 10 Xavier on the road on Wednesday.
And LoVett? He had been on the bench for every home game since the injury but wasn’t there Saturday. Storm coach Chris Mullin said he still is part of the program.
As he has before, Mullin called the Storm performance an “effort [that] will get us wins . . . We’ve just got to do a little bit more winning plays, but we’ll get there; there’s no question in my mind.”
St. John’s held an edge on the Wildcats (16-1, 4-1) for the better part of 16 minutes. Villanova closed the first half strong and scored nine of the first 13 points of the second half to take control, but St. John’s never stopped coming and got the margin down to four points twice in the final 1:19.
The last time was on a drive into the lane by Ponds (15-for-28 shooting) with 48.5 seconds left. The Storm fouled Mikal Bridges on the ensuing possession and he made both ends of a one-and-one. Bidding to make it a one-possession game, Marvin Clark II missed a three-pointer and fouled Jalen Brunson on the rebound. He hit two free throws and Bridges dunked over Owens for a three-point play that made it 78-69.
“We’ve got a good group of guys and I believe we can win with the group of guys that are on the floor,” Clark said of losing LoVett. “It’s adversity. We’re in a rut right now. We’ve just got to figure out how to knock the door down. I feel like once we get that first win, we’ll taste blood and go on a run.”
Villanova coach Jay Wright said St. John’s made the Wildcats’ smooth offense look “ugly” because its defense “never let us get in sync.” Donte DiVincenzo came to the rescue by matching the career-high 25 points he recorded against the Storm last season. He scored or assisted on 12 points in a 15-5 run late in the first half for the lead and had 17 points after halftime.
Even though they had off nights, Bridges had 15 points and 11 rebounds and Brunson added 12 points and five assists.
Ponds eclipsed his career mark of 31 points set earlier this season against Missouri and was the only Storm player in double figures. “We didn’t win,’’ he said, “so whatever my performance was, I wasn’t satisfied.”
Said Clark, “He’s a player we need to play at a very high level for us to win, but [this] speaks to his work ethic. He’s from here. He’s made for this. He’s bred for this. He never backs down from any opportunity or challenge that’s put in front of him. But like he said, we didn’t end with a win. It kind of hurts.”