A little bit of old school conversation in the stands as Villanova and St. John’s met once again in Madison Square Garden... and it was just like old times.
“We were badly out rebounded in the Georgetown game. Rebounding is a skill of effort and smart positioning”, a long time St John’s fan stated.
Sitting next to him were two Villanova fans who added, “This is the Big East. Anyone can beat anyone on a given day. The conference is that good.”
The Villanova fan further expressed that, from a Villanova perspective, it is “great for the conference that Chris Mullin is bringing an old school mentality to St. John’s”.
By “old school” all three fans spoke of a hard-nosed defensive mindset that makes opponents know that a battle is coming, particularly when visiting Madison Square Garden.
St. John’s took an early 6-0 lead in this Madison Square Garden battle as the defensive pressure by the Red Storm was evident from the onset. Malik Ellison shadowed Villanova star Josh Hart and Marcus LoVett pressured point guard Jalen Brunson on every play, clearly disrupting the flow of the Villanova defense.
The initial burst was slowed when Shamorie Ponds picked up his second foul at the 16:45 mark, leading to three free throws by Kris Jenkins of Villanova, tying the score at six. Ponds had to come out and fans commented, “our second best player is out already,” expecting a Villanova surge.
However, when Villanova went into a pressure zone defense which Ellison, then LoVett, broke down feeding Bashir Ahmed in the corner for two consecutive threes, a formula appeared in place for success.
Unfortunately for St. John’s Ahmed did not connect on a three again for the game.
St. John’s led throughout the first fifteen minutes of the first half but the offensive rebounding prowess of Villanova began to emerge. St. John’s defenders were also susceptible to Villanova pump fakes and the experienced Villanova squad successfully used them to draw fouls and go to the foul line.
At the 5:21 mark of the first half Villanova went ahead 25 to 24 on an offensive rebound put back and a free throw and never looked back. The lead increased to six by halftime as the disciplined St. John’s defense began to unravel.
One fan stated, “they shot four uncontested 3’s in the last two minutes of the half,” as St. John’s defenders began to drop down into the paint to defend what had become successful put back baskets by Villanova.
At the half Villanova fans commented about the defense applied on Jalen Brunson by St. John’s guards, particularly LoVett. One fan, who has followed Villanova this year, stated “no one has frustrated Jalen like St. John’s has done today”.
At the beginning of the second half, hope for the Johnnies emerged even after Villanova got three offensive rebounds on the first possession of the half.
Baskets by Kassoum Yakwe on a pretty pass from Ponds and a Ponds bucket on an assist from LoVett made the score 35 -31 Villanova. A second Ponds bucket cut the lead to two but a disputed call on a Ponds turnover deprived the Johnnies of an opportunity to tie the score or go ahead. Josh Hart made a layup and a technical foul on Coach Chris Mullin led to Villanova making one of two foul shots for a 38 to 33 lead at the 17:11 mark.
Led by reserve Donte DiVencenzo (19 points), Villanova was ahead 40-36 at the 15:26 television timeout and chants of “Defense … defense” could be hear after every St. John’s basket. Old school defense was on display by both teams.
Eventually experience and rebounding, particularly on the offensive glass, won out and Villanova was victorious 70 to 57.
St. John’s fans were encouraged by the spirited play and commented, “We can beat this team. We have the talent.” Villanova fans candidly admitted that the game was much closer than the final score would suggest.
Defense on Display: From the onset Marcus LoVett played a tenacious defense on point guard Jalen Brunson (seven turnovers) and Villanova struggled with its offensive sets. Malik Ellison made life difficult for Josh Hart who clearly had an off game. Throughout much of the game the St. John’s defenders played smart defense and the famed Villanova picks to free shooters were fought through.
There was occasional breakdowns caused by attempts to help defend offensive rebounds gathered by the experienced and bulky frontcourt of Villanova but St. John’s gets an “A” for the defensive effort against the number three team in the nation for most of the game.
That Rebounding Margin Again: From the onset St. John’s fans were concerned about the team’s ability to neutralize the frontcourt of Villanova, particularly after being out rebounded by Georgetown in the previous game by 22.
A case can be made that Villanova won this game on the offensive boards gathering thirteen offensive rebounds to three for St. John’s. If St. John’s could have neutralized this rebounding discrepancy, clearly the game would have been much closer.
Tariq Owens had seven rebounds but Kassoum Yakwe, Amar Alibegovic and Darien Williams combined for only two rebounds for a total of nine for frontcourt players. This continues to be a challenging area for the Red Storm.
Offensive Movement: The team impressed fans with the offensive movement of the ball, particularly in the first half.
The Johnnies had 14 assists on twenty baskets (70%) while Villanova, known for its precision in offensive sets, only had nine assists on 24 baskets for percentage of 37.5.
Some of the assists were specular leading to two dunks by Kassoum Yakwe and feeds to the corner for threes by Ahmed off of drives by the guards to the hoop. At 10:18 of the first half, the crowd roared, “defense … defense” after reserve forward Amar Alibegovic received a pass in the point and quickly fed Federico Mussini for a three and an 18-10 St. John’s lead.
Moving Forward: DePaul visits on January 16, 2017 and then road games at Seton Hall and Providence. With a continuation of the defensive effort, particularly on the opponent’s point guard, and a continuation of the ball movement, evident in this game, fans have a right to believe that the potential for wins exists. Villanova fans, expressing relief, took the time to advise, “The final score did not indicate how close this game was”.
St John’s fans agree.