VILLANOVA– As the basketball season was coming along, the matchup between Villanova and #24 ranked St. John’s kept looking more and more enticing and the hype kept building up towards this game.
And boy did it deliver.
St. John’s controlled the game for the first 35 minutes but it was Villanova that ultimately took the lead when it mattered most, winning by a final score of 76-71 at the Pavilion on Tuesday night.
“That was a really good basketball team we played,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. “I’m proud of our guys just sticking together.”
At the start of the game, it looked like vintage Villanova basketball; except it was St. John’s that looked like the Villanova teams we’re used to seeing as they jumped out to a 15-2 lead in the first four minutes.
“We just had to keep a good attitude,” Villanova senior forward Eric Paschall said. “It’s a game of runs, we just kept playing defense, kept getting stops, keeping a positive attitude throughout the whole game.”
The Wildcats really relied on their two seniors, Paschall and guard Phil Booth, with Paschall scoring 17 of his game-high 25 points in the first half and Booth scoring 15 of his 23 points in the second half. Both seniors played practically the entire game with Paschall playing 40 minutes and Booth playing 39.
“We ended the game still with two timeouts and they’re in great shape,” Wright said. “I told them if there’s a time in the game, let me know I’ll burn a timeout and they were going strong and usually we don’t use timeouts when someone’s tired we just sub but they never told me, they didn’t look tired to me, that’s great conditioning and I think that’s a credit to their work too.”
Combined, the two scored 48 of Villanova’s 76 points. The rest of the team only scored 28.
Though that’s not to say that those 28 points went to waste, a good chunk of them came in the second half when Villanova was creeping back into the game.
Freshman guard Saddiq Bey scored all seven of his points in the second half, including two free throws to ice the game, sophomore wing Jermaine Samuels knocked down some big free throws towards the end as did freshman wing Cole Swider, and freshman guard Jahvon Quinerly had a nice lay-in to really jolt the crowd onto their feet and brought energy off the bench.
“I think it’s pretty obvious to everybody that we have to keep growing those guys,” Wright said. “I thought Jahvon gave us great minutes, great energy, Cole Swider did a really nice job for us, Saddiq was awesome and they have to keep getting better but we have to get them out there and they need to be in games like this.
Besides Booth and Paschall, no player on Villanova’s roster has ever played at the Pavilion in a raucous environment against a top 25 team. The past few tilts between Villanova and St. John’s, one team is always ranked, it just has never been the Red Storm as they came into Tuesday night’s game 14-1 with the one loss coming on a questionable call that led to a buzzer-beating victory for Seton Hall.
“They have everything,” Booth said. “Guards that can really score and can shoot the ball, they switch everything and do a good job one on one defensively, they do a very good job as a team.”
Coming into the game, the main question for Villanova was how do they contain St. John’s star guard Shamorie Ponds. Ponds has absolutely lit up opposing defenses this year, averaging 20.6 points per game, but in the past, Villanova has had trouble containing the 6-foot-1 guard from Brooklyn.
Last season in a St. John’s loss at Madison Square Garden, Ponds put up a staggering 37 points on 54 percent shooting. When St. John’s came to the Wells Fargo Center last season and upset then-ranked #1 Villanova, Ponds dropped 26 on them.
In the first half, it looked like Ponds was about to go for another high-scoring game against the Wildcats as he had 15 points on 5-8 shooting at the half. But something changed in the second half as he was only held to eight points on 2-9 shooting.
“Collin Gillespie did a really good job on him,” Wright said. “At the end we tried to get Phil on him, I think Collin got tired guarding him and that’s where Jahvon’s energy in the second half got Collin a blow and he came in fresh and did a really good job on him and that allowed us to get Collin back in there fresh.”
“I thought he was a little non-aggressive,” St. John’s head coach Chris Mullin said. “I thought he had some matchups where he could’ve drove the ball but opted to pull up and shoot a jumpshot.”
Villanova was never really battle tested last season and when they were, it’s when guys like Samuels and Gillespie were out with injury. So to have a game like this, in this environment could go a long way towards helping Villanova build as a team towards March.
“No one’s really been in these kind of games so when we can experience it and come out with a win, it’s really valuable to us,” Wright said. “And thank God for Phil and (Eric) for really carrying these guys not just in scoring but as leaders and teaching them everyday in practice, I’m really proud of them.”
Coming into Tuesday’s game, St. John’s had a chance to prove that they were legitimate title contenders in the Big East, but the story stays the same for now: The Big East still goes through the Main Line.
“Yeah no question, absolutely,” Mullin said. “The way they play and the way they win, they have a championship pedigree, that’s the team to beat in the league for sure.