In a battle of youth vs. experience, the young St. John’s Red Storm—which only features one senior on their roster—proved to not be fazed by the visiting No. 3-ranked Villanova.
However, by the time the final buzzer sounded, it was the veteran Wildcats who would emerge on top, overcoming a slow start to win 70-57 in front of a packed crowd of at least 18,000 spectators in Madison Square Garden.
"In the first half we played them good,” St. John’s Shamorie Ponds said. “In the second half, they attacked us and we backed down. They punched us, and we couldn’t recover from the punch that they gave us.”
The Red Storm blitzed the Wildcats early. They set a fearless tone from opening tip, getting off to a 6-0 start in the first two minutes of the game to get the St. John’s fans going and force a quick Villanova time out. The Wildcats struggled to settle in, and the Red Storm took advantage, but was never able to spark a devastating run to put Villanova on the back burner.
St. John’s had the lead for a majority of the first half, but its fortune turned around for the worse very quickly.
Down by five, Villanova went on a 9-0 run to take a 28-24 lead with just under five minutes left in the half. A Mikal Bridges three sparked the run and was followed by an Eric Paschall and-one and another three by Donte DiVincenzo. From there, the Wildcats would nurse their lead into the break, holding a 35-29 advantage at half.
"We weren’t focused on our scouting report, we just didn’t bring it,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said of his team’s effort. "Starting like that, it’s going to catch up to us.”
The second half was much improved for Villanova, who kept St. John’s at bay. It picked up its shooting and was able to get the shots to fall, while the Red Storm went cold to close out the game.
In a game where Villanova’s starters weren’t that effective (combined 35.1 shooting percentage and 18 turnovers), the Wildcats got much production and energy from their bench. Donte DiVincenzo and Eric Paschall combined for 28 points and an efficient 11-of-16 performance on the floor.
Meanwhile, St. John’s was paced by Ponds’ 13 points and Marcus LoVett’s 12. Malik Ellison (10 points) and Bashir Ahmed (11) also eclipsed double figures for the Red Storm.
"I think that was an example of a young, hungry team playing against a veteran team,” Wright said. "Disappointed with our effort, but impressed with St. John’s effort and tenacity. Our 20 turnovers--that’s a testament to St. John’s effort and toughness."
Three takeaways from the game:
As good as Villanova is at operating with smaller lineups, due to limited front court depth, the Wildcats have ran into problems in the past but have been able to manage with their perimeter-oriented offense. This time around, they barely managed. Anchored by the front court tandem of 6-7 forward Kassoum Yakwe and 6-11 Tariq Owens, the impeccable shot-blocking duo have kept the smaller ‘Cats wary of going inside in the beginning. There were a couple of powerful rejections by the towering tandem, one on Villanova’s Darryl Reynolds inside and another on Josh Hart.
Unlike prior experiences in which it had won, Villanova didn’t shoot well from outside. It did just enough to get by, but its 7-of-21 (33.3 percent) performance from beyond the arc left much to be desired. Combine that with an ugly 20 turnovers and stagnant ball movement (only nine assists on 24 baskets), the Wildcats had a tough time getting themselves going on offense for most of the game.
“We’re trying to get to a certain level of play,” Wright said. “We played similar here as we did in the Butler game. We’re not a finished product yet.”
However, despite a bigger front court, St. John’s got burned on the offensive glass. The Red Storm was outrebounded 41-23, and allowed the ‘Cats to corral 13 offensive rebounds which translated into 14 second chance points. There were obvious positive and negative takeaways for both teams in that department.
“Statistically, the rebounds are what killed us,” Mullin said. “Their zone controlled the tempo for the most part. We never got any offensive rhythm. Looking at it, a lot of their second, third efforts were after good defense, but we couldn’t secure the rebound.”
After winning back-to-back games to start the Big East schedule—including an upset win over then-ranked No. 13 Butler—the Red Storm has cooled off with its fourth straight loss in conference play after its most recent bout against Villanova.
“A lot of our miscues were somewhat self-conflicted,” Mullin said of the Villanova loss. “When you get a team to turn the ball over 20 times and not capitalize, that’s frustrating.”
Granted, the Red Storm had no favors with three out of four losses coming from ranked opponents: Creighton, Xavier, and now Villanova—but was the win over Butler a fluke?
“We’re just growing,” Mullin said. “We’re growing together. We’re going to go through growing pains.”
St. John’s has DePaul next, but after that, a pair of road games and then a rematch with Xavier leaves more questions than answers on how St. John’s will finish this season. So far, the Red Storm is a subpar 3-4 on the road this season. Also, how much are the Johnnies bound to improve after only winning one Big East game last year?
Villanova’s Thin—But Effective—Bench
On a day where Villanova’s senior pair of Jenkins and Hart scored 21 altogether on a lackluster 5-of-23 between the two of them, it was the Wildcats’ reserves that would get them going.
The ‘Cats are operating on a short rotation, with Eric Paschall and Donte DiVincenzo, and do not have the noted depth that was so characteristic of last year’s National Championship team and other recent Wildcat squads.
Paschall and DiVincenzo turned the tide of the game, capping off a 9-0 run in the first half with a Paschall and-one and a DiVincenzo three to give Villanova’s first lead of the game. From there, the Wildcats never gave it back. Paschall had nine points off of 4-of-6 shooting, but it was the stellar play of DiVincenzo that was the X-Factor in this game. DiVincenzo scored 19 points—a career high—off of 7-of-10 shooting.
“I think he can be a Josh Hart, I really do,” Wright said of DiVincenzo. “I talked to him about that before. What impressed us so much about Josh is that he’s complete, there’s nothing on the basketball court that he can’t do. I think Donte can do that too.”