When St. John’s hosted Villanova at Madison Square Garden in February, the Johnnies trailed 66-46 with less than four minutes remaining. Despite the odds being stacked against them, they stormed back, putting together a 23-9 run to close the game. It wasn’t enough to get the win, but it was enough to create momentum. Just over a month later, the Red Storm picked up where they left off against the Wildcats in the semifinals of the Big East Tournament.
Julian Champagnie got things started, scoring the game’s first basket and nine of the first eleven scored by St. John’s. Couple that with some baskets from Stef Smith and a dunk from Joel Soriano, and the Red Storm were out to a 19-10 lead against the number two seed in the Big East.
The Wildcats weren’t about to go down easy, though. Caleb Daniels knocked down back-to-back threes to answer the run and pull Villanova within three. Daniels scored nine points in the period, all from beyond the arc.
The run seemed to swing momentum back in Villanova’s favor. That was until St. John’s ripped off nine straight points, jump-started by a Montez Mathis three and punctuated by an Esahia Nyiwe slam that sent the crowd into a frenzy.
Big East Player of the Year Collin Gillespie and teammate Justin Moore both hit threes for Villanova that cut the deficit, but the Johnnies entered halftime with a 30-23 lead.
The second half started the same as the first. Champagnie notched seven of his team’s first nine while the Wildcats went without a field goal for the first four minutes. A Posh Alexander three with 15:38 left in the game put the Red Storm ahead 44-27, their largest lead of the game. Playing in the home away from home and after a dominant performance on Wednesday night against DePaul, everything seemed to be going right for St. John’s.
And then, all at once, things turned.
The shots that hadn’t fallen through the first 25 minutes were finally going in for Villanova. Moore hit a three, followed by a Daniels layup and a Gillespie three. The Cats were rolling. They put together an 18-2 run capped by a Brandon Slater and-one that cut the deficit to just one with more than ten minutes left in the game.
Less than two minutes later, Alexander’s fourth foul sent Daniels to the line for two shots. He hit them both. Villanova 51, St. John’s 50. It was Villanova’s first lead of the game. The Wildcats had erased a 17-point deficit in less than eight minutes.
The comeback set up a back-and-forth final stretch. The teams exchanged baskets with the Wildcats maintaining their lead until Collin Gillespie missed a free throw and Stef Smith responded with a layup-and-one to put St. John’s ahead 65-64 with 2:08 to play.
The next 2:06 were scoreless, filled with turnovers and missed shots. Villanova got the ball with the shot clock off, down by one, after a Champagnie airball. Jermaine Samuels backed into the paint and got blocked by Aaron Wheeler. The Cats got the ball back and got fouled, sending Brandon Slater to the line for two shots.
Slater hit both. Villanova 66, St. John’s 65.
A last-second heave from Stef Smith went wide of the basket, and the Wildcats finished a wild comeback victory to advance to the semifinals.