In front of Rawle Alkins and a number of high quality recruits, St. John's, who has lost 12 games in a row, collapsed in the final 20 minutes, losing 68 to 53 at Madison Square Garden against the top team in the Big East and the 6th ranked Villanova Wildcats on Sunday.
"Our defensive effort was really really good, especially in the halfcourt," Chris Mullin said following the game. "But we didn't capitalize. We've had a hard enough time putting the ball in the basket when we don't play great defense."
The Johnnies were led by Durand Johnson (13 points on 5-of-15 shooting) and Ron Mvouika (11 points and 10 rebounds) but received very little production from Federico Mussini and Kassoum Yakwe, who combined for just five points. Christian Jones put up 10 points, Malik Ellison added four points and Amar Alibegovic scored eight points off the bench.
Daniel Ochefu, Villanova's lone center, was out with a concussion but Chris Mullin's squad still gave the Wildcats 12 second chance points and gave up 13 offensive boards. The Red Storm struggled against the discipline Villanova defense and committed careless giveaways on the offensive end. With 21 total turnovers, the Red Storm could not take advantage of a solid performance from downtown, eight threes, and a neck-and-neck opening half.
Both teams started out the game flat on the offensive end, as they combined for 21 turnovers and shot poorly from the field (St. John's 30 percent and Villanova 23 percent). But after falling down 15-9 with less than 10 minutes remaining in the half, the Red Storm had a strong 12-point run thanks to effective ball movement (seven assists on 10 field goals in the first frame) and Villanova's inability to hit open shots.
While they struggled on the defensive glass, shot only four free throws and had to deal with Yakwe and Mussini's foul trouble, the Johnnies had 10 points in the paint in the opening half. They utilized Christian Jones in post-up situations and Durand Johnson was attacking the rim instead of launching outside shots. St. John's also gained a huge momentum boost heading into the halftime break, as Mvouika hit a fall away three at the buzzer to put the home team down just one.
But the Wildcats poured it on in the second half, as Kris Jenkins, who had 14 points and 10 rebounds, caught fire and the Wildcats started to find some rhythm on the offense with Josh Hart (16 points and 11 rebounds) and Mikal Bridges (13 points) giving Jay Wright's squad valuable energy. A 19-4 run in the first eight minutes of the second half put the game out of reach as the Johnnies had issues with the Wildcats half-court zone press.
"Their press lulled us into mistakes," Mullin said. "It wasn't so much the pressure, we just weren't aggressive."
Villanova shot 36 percent from the field, 32 percent from three and earned 13 more free throws than the Red Storm. They had 20 turnovers of their own but their effort on the glass was overwhelming.
While a loss is a loss, the Johnnies showed fight and desire even as they were dominated at the beginning of the second half. And that intensity, impressed Villanova coach Jay Wright to the point that he has been really impressed with the job Mullin is doing in his first year.
"Those guys play really hard for Chris," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "There's a lot of teams that come in here and get leads but they (the Johnnies) keep coming and coming. They never quit. That's just a sign of what a great job Chris has done.
"I'm amazed at how good of a job Chris (Mullin) has done. They have like two guys back from the team and they recruited guys late. I don't know if there's a Division 1 team in this situation. His ability to get them to play hard every night is amazing. It's really difficult to do with young people."
Next up for St. John's (7-15, 0-9) is a trip to Cincinnati to face another top 10 school in the Xavier Musketeers at the Cintas Center. In a meeting earlier this season at Carnesecca Arena, the Johnnies nearly pulled off a shocker, losing by just eight following a Federico Mussini technical foul.