With a chance to move into third place in the Big East and continue an improbable rise in the standings, the Red Storm fell short against Villanova Saturday afternoon in Philadelphia, falling 57-54.
"Anyone who watched could tell it was a Big East battle, right to the end," said St. John's head coach Steve Lavin after the game.
"Two in a row for us...old-school Big East game, ugly, physical," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "You had to be physically and mentally tough in this game."
Rysheed Jordan's Philadelphia return - and Chris Obekpa's return from injury - came close, so close, to continuing a redemption story. But a bank shot from Ryan Arcidiacono with under 4:00 left gave the Wildcats a 53-50 lead they would not relinquish.
St. John's falls to 18-10, 8-7 in the Big East. St. John's takes on Xavier in Madison Square Garden on Tuesday to battle for third place in the Big East. Villanova improves to 24-3 with their next matchup against Butler on Wednesday at home.
St. John's came in without Orlando Sanchez, whose wife gave birth this weekend, and thought they would be without game changing center Chris Obekpa.
Obekpa, at least, came back to make a surprise start against the #9/#11 (depending on which poll you prefer) Villanova Wildcats. Early, Villanova got off to a 8-0 run, but the Red Storm found Phil Greene IV for a pair of threes to get the team started.
Much of the game was a back-and-forth affair, with both teams providing stiff defense in the paint. The Villanova defense was tough, but also allowed the Johnnies 9 free throw attempts; combined with the Johnnies ability to convert Villanova mistakes into points, the Red Storm were only down one at the half.
The Wildcats, though, were able to abuse the St. John's man-to-man defense for open three-point shots, led by Darrun Hilliard who had 11 at the half.
The Wildcats opened the lead up to six early in the second half, goading the Red Storm into those long three-pointers that rarely show success. But defensive attention and some Rysheed Jordan activity helped bring the Red Storm back in what became a taut affair.
With eight minutes left, Sir`Dominic Pointer tied the game with a layup; that shot was the last shot the Johnnies made from the field until Harrison's driving jumper with 0:58 against Josh Hart.
St. John's strong defense, powered by a small lineup with JaKarr Sampson at center and Pointer at power forward kept the Red Storm close; they forced four turnovers and allowed one made basket between Pointer's shot and the 3:47 mark, where Arcidiacono hit a banked three over the outstretched arms of Sampson.
"Arch works on that banked three all the time," Wright said. "He's one of the few people who can make it consistently."
"It was all luck," Arcidiacono said of his shot.
That three was decisive; the Johnnies could not convert in the paint late in the game. Or early in the game either; the Red Storm shot 33% on two-pointers, and scored .82 points per possession overall. The Wildcats were held to .91 points per possession, far lower than their in-conference 1.17 pts/ possession average.
Darrun Hilliard led the Wildcats with 18 points (6/8 from the field); Arcidiacono had 12. Daniel Ochefu had five points and 11 total rebounds. The Wildcats shot 41% from beyond the arc in the game.
St. John's spread the wealth; Harrison had 15 points, Rysheed Jordan added 13 in his Philly return, Sampson added 12, and Phil Greene IV had 9. St. John's forced 15 turnovers (24% of the Wildcats' possessions).
"We're not satisfied," Harrison said. "We're not into moral victories. We should have got the W."
End game notes
At the end of the game, the Johnnies had a chance to pull out the win with 20 seconds left, but Harrison, facing a defense closing out on him, passed up a contested shot and passed to a cutting Phil Greene; Greene, who had excelled as a catch-and-shoot player all game, found himself in the Villanova trees and committed a traveling violation, shuffling his feet.
And with one last chance, the Johnnies put in three-point shooters Max Hooper and Marc-Antoine Bourgault with three seconds left. The ball reached a cutting D`Angelo Harrison from inbounder Bourgault, who drew a foul under the basket (awkwardly given by Daniel Ochefu, who should have left Harrison unmolested).
But the Red Storm were down three.
Harrison made one free throw, and missed one intentionally to give a chance to Obekpa and God`sGift Achiuwa, inserted at the stoppage for the free throws, to tap the ball in. But one of the players committed a lane violation for an end to the last reasonable scoring chance.
**hat tip to Jaden Daly for the post game quotes.