New York, NY —-St. John’s knew they had a tall task to fill with Posh Alexander on the sideline in a walking boot and with the Wildcats playing good in their last few games. The Johnnies didn’t play well except for the last three minutes of the game.
Justin Moore poured in 16 points to help the No. 15 Wildcats starve off a late charge by St. John’s in a 75-69 victory Tuesday night at “The Worlds’ Famous Arena”.
For more than 36 minutes, the Wildcats (18-6, 11-3 Big East) had been in control of the game scoring at will. Villanova led by 20 points with 4:27 left to go. Without Alexander (sprained ankle), and with Julian Champagnie limited by a right hip injury he suffered in the first half, St. John’s didn’t have many answers in the paint for Eric Dixon.
Dixon had 16 points and the Wildcats (18-6, 11-3 Big East) overcame a scoreless outing by Collin Gillespie, who was banged up a little. Villanova found a way to compensate for Gillespie lack of production, they fed the ball to Dixon on the blocks and he did the rest.
Wildcats Gillespie and Justin Moore, were able to start on bad ankles, though neither were at optimal health status (Gillespie went scoreless for the first since his freshman year in 2018)— they were still impactful. Gillespie had 10 boards, Moore chipped in 16 points.
“I was proud of our guys sticking it out, playing for the whole 40 minutes,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said.
Despite a cold-shooting in the first half for the Johnnies, the Red Storm was able to stay in the contest, as the Wildcats took a 34-28 lead into the break.
The problem with the Johnnies is their inability to play well for longer stretches of a game. Red Storm coach Mike Anderson’s postgame press conference echoed that same sentiment.
“I think the energy has got to be there from the start,” he said. “These guys have to play with the same mindset early on. That’s the fire I’m looking for that you’ve got to have for 40 minutes.”
Villanova outscored the Johnnies’ in the paint, 40-22.
After the break, the Johnnies was able to cut the lead to three points, but Villanova responded with a 13-0 spurt that spanned more than five minutes.
But with a little more than four minutes remaining left in the game, the basketball light bulb came on. Led by Aaron Wheeler and Stef Smith (12 points), the Johnnies had a 23-6 run in a little over three minutes. St. John’s forced eight turnovers in that span, and suddenly they were playing like a team who wanted to compete.
Wheeler rallied his team during the come back finishing the game (13-10, 5-7) with 31 points — 14 more than his previous career high. He was 6-of-10 shooting from downtown. But the rest of his teammates struggled to score, as the Red Storm shot just 32.0% as a team — and 22.4% excluding Wheeler’s contributions. But none of that mattered during the Jonnies’ comeback.
The Red Storm trailed by 20 with under four minutes left but started to make plays on both ends of the court.
“The sense of urgency, you can see it,” Anderson said, referring to the late comeback attempt. “This team is going to be playing some of its best basketball right now.”
The Red Storm actually had a chance to tie it when Coburn got a good look at a long 3 but missed. They had shaved the deficit to 72-69 with 35 seconds remaining on a three by Wheeler, a graduate transfer from Purdue.
“It’s just amazing to me what happens at the end of games,” Wright said. “It’s incredible. You can play that well and the game can go a certain way for that long and then all of a sudden everything changes. I honestly don’t have an answer for you.”
Brandon Slater poured in 15 points and grabbed seven boards for the Cats, which led for nearly 38 minutes. Jermaine Samuels and Caleb Daniels each scored 13.
“It’s just amazing, the end of the game,” Wright said. “I’ve been doing this a long time, and I don’t even know what to say about what happened at the end of the game. I have to watch the film. You can play the game well in the game, it goes a certain way for that long, and all of a sudden, everything changes.”
Villanova: Improved to 11-2 since consecutive road losses by at least 20 points against then-No. 2 Baylor and Creighton in December. Both defeats during that stretch have come against Marquette. The Cats have been kings of the Big East for years, but they have a serious challenger this season and are headed toward a fierce showdown at Providence next Tuesday night in the first of two scheduled games.
St. John’s: After winning two Big East road games in three days last week, the Johnnies were unable to follow it up against a top-flight opponent without Alexander. Playing their fifth game in 11 days, they dropped to 0-5 versus ranked teams and are running out of opportunities for a signature win that could start to build any credible postseason resume.
St. John’s: Back at Madison Square Garden to host No. 24 Connecticut in a noon start on Super Bowl Sunday. It will be the second road game for the Huskies in a span of 41 hours, although they’ll probably have plenty of fans in the building. St. John’s nearly stole one at UConn on Jan. 12 but lost 86-78 in overtime despite 27 points from Champagnie.