St. John's had cut Villanova's lead to just five. The Garden was beginning to rock.
Then Steve Lavin called timeout.
The Red Storm fell, 66-53, to the Villanova Wildcats on Wednesday night in the second round of the Big East Tournament. A spirited first half performance gave the Johnnies a gleam of hope before the Storm reverted to its recognizable offensive suffocation.
Villanova's ten-point lead was cut in half when Lavin chose to call one of his final three timeouts after a Phil Greene forced turnover and made lay-up. The Wildcats scored the next seven points out of the timeout, and the momentum that could have been used to catapult St. John's into a quarterfinal match with Louisville was sucked away.
The Big East Tournament is a different animal than the regular season, and it looked evident early. St. John's and Villanova combined for seven turnovers in the first five minutes - perhaps a sign of inexperienced jitters under the bright lights of the Garden.
Without leading scorer D`Angelo Harrison due to a season-ending suspension, the Johnnies were slightly shorthanded. As Steve Lavin did on Saturday against Marquette by entering Khadim N'Diaye, walk-on David Lipscomb played his first important minutes during the first half.
In fact, St. John's looked like they had five walk-ons in the game as they were missing shots, confusing defensive assignments, and getting sloppy with the ball. The Johnnies fell down 18-6 when the Wildcats went on a 9-0 run, as St. John's went over six minutes without scoring.
But St. John's went on a 9-2 run of their own, spirited by seven points from Phil Greene IV, to weather the Wildcat storm and keep the game from getting away early.
Strong defensive pressure forced Villanova into ten first half turnovers, as two of the departing Catholic 7 were tied 24-24 heading into halftime.
The energy the Johnnies used eliminating its 12-point deficit carried over into the beginning of the second half.
When the two teams met to open the Big East season, Villanova went to the free throw line 42 times. The Wildcats did not shoot their first free throw until the 17:13 mark of the second half on Wednesday night. They'd go on to take 22 more free throws throughout the rest of the game.
"We struggled in the first half," Villanova head coach Jay Wright said afterwards. "But in the second half, we got much more aggressive, made plays, and found a way to get to the foul line."
The Red Storm did a nice job keeping Arcidiacono in check before halftime, but his NBA-range three-pointer gave Villanova its lead back with 16:02 remaining. He scored 32 points in his Big East debut against St. John's two months ago.
Jamal Branch played some of the first half and the beginning portion of the second half with two fouls before he committed his third with just under 13 minutes left. He was forced to sit, and returned a few minutes later before subsequently committing his fourth foul as part of a Villanova three-point play that gave the Wildcats a 45-38 advantage.
After a JaKarr Sampson technical foul for hanging onto the rim, Villanova extended its lead to ten points (50-40). But a quick 5-0 Phil Greene spurt kept the Johnnies within grasp of the Wildcats.
Yet instead of looking to maintain and/or build upon the momentum, Steve Lavin called the questionably-placed timeout giving Villanova an opportunity to reset itself against the Red Storm's pressure. With a blink of an eye, the Wildcats' lead was back to 12 points with 4:18 left.
Villanova never looked back.
Mouphtaou Yarou led the way for the Wildcats with 18 points on an efficient 9-10 shooting from the field, as Arcidacono added 15 points. Villanova, who has seemingly solidified its at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament, will play Louisville on Thursday night.
Phil Greene (16 points) and JaKarr Sampson (13) combined for 29 of the Red Storm's 53 points, but went a combined 8-24 from the field. Sir`Dominic Pointer, in his first game back from a one-game suspension following his fight at Notre Dame last week, contributed seven points, four rebounds, and three assists in the loss.
Despite Villanova's 16 turnovers, the Johnnies committed nine second half turnovers of their own and finished with the same amount of cough-ups as the Wildcats.
St. John's shot just 35.6% (21-59) from the field, and went just 2-11 from three-point range.
Felix Balamou went down with a left ankle sprain after landing on a Villanova player. He left the game midway through the first half and did not return.
St. John's will wait until Sunday to see if it is granted a spot in the NIT. After losing its final five games of the season, the Johnnies will likely have to go on the road if selected.