(Photo by Jason Schott/Daly Dose Of Hoops)
By Jason Schott (@JESchott19)
NEW YORK -- The Villanova Wildcats, the number-one ranked team in the country outlasted St. John's, 78-71, Saturday night in front of 17,123 at Madison Square Garden. Villanova has been the top-ranked team in the country for four weeks this season, and they improve to 16-1 overall, 4-1 in Big East play.
For St. John's, the story is quite different, as they dropped to 0-6 in Big East play (10-8 overall), but played with a lot of pride in their first game since it was announced sophomore guard Marcus LoVett would not return for the remainder of the season this past Wednesday. The Red Storm were led by Shamorie Ponds, who had a career-high 37 points on 15-of-28 shooting from the field, also recording seven rebounds and two assists.
Villanova has now won 13 straight over St. John's, with the Red Storm's last win in the series coming in Philadelphia on February 26, 2011, Steve Lavin's first year as head coach of a team that made the NCAA Tournament.
St. John's came out strong on defense in this one, as Villanova did not get their first point until the 16:51 mark of the first half, on a free throw by Omari Spellman. Their first basket came on a three from Eric Paschall just over a minute later, at 15:46. The Red Storm led for most of the first half, powered by 10 points from Ponds. However, the turning point in the opening stanza was a stretch of eight straight points from Donte DiVincenzo off the bench that keyed a 12-3 Villanova run to give the Wildcats a 34-25 lead before they would go into halftime with a 34-27 edge.
Villanova began to take over in the second half, as Jalen Brunson drained a three to make it 43-33 at the 16:43 mark. They maintained that lead throughout, and a DiVincenzo three gave them an 11-point edge, 61-50, with seven minutes left. St. John's would make a late run, though, as they went on a 7-0 spurt capped by Ponds' free throws to pull within four, at 69-65, with 1:18 remaining.
Villanova made seven free throws in the final minute, five of which came from Mikal Bridges, and it was a Bridges dunk with 15 seconds left that made it 77-69 and iced the victory.
DiVincenzo led the Wildcats with 25 points off the bench on 7-of-11 shooting, and a superb 6-of-9 from behind the arc, with seven rebounds and three assists. Bridges had a double-double with 15 points and 11 rebounds, adding three blocks and two assists to offset five turnovers. Brunson had 12 points with five assists and five rebounds. Spellman had 10 points, seven rebounds, and one assist. Incredibly, Ponds was the only St. John's player to score in double figures on his career night, as Justin Simon and Bashir Ahmed had just seven points apiece. The Red Storm shot 43 percent of the field (28-for-64). When you take out Ponds (15-for-28), they were 13-36. They were 1-for-12 on threes, with the lone make coming from Bryan Trimble, Jr. in the first half.
St. John's head coach Chris Mullin said of the game, “I think this effort, which I’ve said a few times and it hasn’t happened yet, but this effort will get us wins. We played the No. 1 team in the country to a tie in the second half. I think we were down four when whatever play that was [happened]. You probably got a better look at it than me, but that’s great effort. That’s winning basketball. They’re No. 1, best in the country, and I’m proud of my guys. I told them after the game, the effort is there, it really is. It’s been there for the most part, no question about that, we just have to do a little more and make winning plays. We will get there, there’s no question in my mind.”
Mullin was asked about the defensive possession after St. John’s cut it to four, and he turned it into a chance to talk positively about his team.
“We’re not going to talk about it," he said. "You can look at it just like we can. We were down four with whatever time was left against the No. 1 team. That’s the point. That’s pretty good. We were down 10 and hung in there. We made some plays, got stops, some of those loose-balls rebounds, some tip-ins, and things like that. To me, that’s what I’ve been preaching, and I believe it. It’s not a cliché to me. If we keep doing that, we will knock the door down and get wins. We just really got to keep that positive mindset, and the worker’s mentality. It’s not supposed to be easy. Any path that’s easy isn’t worth it, so this is going to be really worth it for us.”
Mullin said of Villanova, “They move the ball, attack the paint, they come to classic two-foot stops, they use crisp passes, and they end it with made shots. They are just a well-oiled machine. They play old-fashioned basketball with the three mixed in. It’s nothing fancy, come with triple threats, get low, and try to get to the paint. They’ll post-up, they don’t always shoot from the post-up, but they’re very disciplined. Nothing but respect for them.”
Ponds said of his personal performance, “I just tried to do what was possible to get my team a win, if it wasn’t scoring it was defending, rebounding, and just trying to do what my team needed.”
On the team's effort, he said, “I think we were doing a good job defending. We had little mental errors where we messed up, and they converted on them.”
Marvin Clark II said of Ponds' night, “I have the utmost respect for him. He is one of the best players in the country and one of the better players in our conference. I am happy that he got to see the ball go in. He is a player that we need to play at a very high level for us to win. I think it just speaks to his worth ethic. He is from here, he is made for this, he never backs down from any opportunity or any challenge that is put in front of him, and I am proud and happy for him.”