By Dan Gardella
New York – There has been little to cheer about in recent years if you are a St. John’s fan. But there was a prime opportunity to do such Sunday evening.
Sitting at 18-7 and their fully body of work still difficult to put together, it appeared that St. John’s needed one final statement win to take them off of the bubble line of the NCAA Tournament debate and reach the big dance for the first time in Chris Mullin’s coaching career.
That opportunity to do so was staring them in the face as Villanova marched into town. After matching the Wildcats play for play and ultimately falling in their first matchup, the Johnnies would try to take advantage of a packed, home crowd at Madison Square Garden.
Early on, Villanova flexed their muscles and exposed St. John’s on the defensive end, resulting in a 6-12 start from three-point territory for the Wildcats. Whether it was ball movement or miscommunication, St. John’s appeared disoriented and unable to adjust as Villanova jumped out to a 20-8 lead just eight minutes in.
The lead would swell to 19 thanks to an Eric Paschall three-pointer to make it 29-10. The crowd was taken out of it and Villanova was rolling. How would St. John’s respond, if they would at all?
The massive lead would only be cut into ever so slightly, 14 points to be exact as the first half was coming to a close. Who or what would light a fire under the Red Storm?
Justin Simon appeared to answer the call. As the opening frame winded down, Saddiq Bey missed a three-pointer as the shot clock expired and Simon pulled down the rebound with five seconds to play. He turned, took a few dribbles, and hoisted a 70-footer that slammed the backboard and found its way in to send St. John’s into the locker room only trailing by 11.
“We were screaming the whole way back to the locker room that we could come back,” said Mustapha Heron. “We just had to do it on the defensive end.”
Following halftime, Marvin Clark II knocked down his first shot of the evening, a three-pointer to cut the lead to eight. The Garden crowd would soon begin to seem louder and louder by the minute.
“The energy was crazy,” said Heron. “I have never played in anything like it. It was fun.”
Villanova would silence them with an 11-5 run to open the lead to 14 with just under 13 minutes to play. In previous years, this is where St. John’s would be outdone. The fans knew it and settled back in their seats as play progressed.
But tournament teams don’t give in.
St. John’s stunned the Wildcats and put the Garden into a frenzy with a 17-3 run over the next four minutes to knot things at 51 with 8:25 left. The once insurmountable lead evaporated and gave fans a reason to be loud.
The Red Storm would take their first lead of the game at the 7:28 mark when L.J. Figueroa, who scored a game-high 22 points, knocked down one of his three three-pointers to help St. John’s fully overcome the deficit and lead 54-53.
The teams would exchange points over the next few minutes but St. John’s would remain in the lead for most of it, forcing Villanova to play form behind in a game that began to slip away from the Wildcats.
As time ticked down and Villanova went cold, the Garden’s energy told the story. The Red Storm were going dancing for the first time in four seasons. There was no doubt about it.
St. John’s would get stops and convert at the free throw line to put Villanova away for good.
In one of the biggest games of the season for St. John’s, their leading scorer, Shamorie Ponds, was held to just 11 points on 2-14 shooting. However, the Johnnies responded by having other guys step up.
“They can win without him. That’s why they are an NCAA Tournament team,” said Villanova head coach Jay Wright.
After dominating much of the first half, Villanova managed to only shoot 5-24 from the field and 3-15 from behind the arc in the second half. The two senior leaders in Eric Paschall and Phil Booth combined for a 4-22 shooting night.
Outside of Figueroa’s 22 points, Mustapha Heron scored 19 points and Justin Simon had 13, no points bigger than the buzzer beater to close the first half.
When Chris Mullin first took the job at St. John’s, the goal was apparent: Build the program back to what it used to be. In his words, there has been “natural progression” bringing the group to the pinnacle of gaining a spot in the tournament.
St. John’s looks to take their largest comeback win since 2010 on the road when they face off with Providence in hopes of avenging their disappointing home loss just eight days ago.
PHOTO: Mustapha Heron/steven ryan (Newsday)