Madison Square Garden began filling with large patches of fans in red on Sunday afternoon. Restless anticipation became a restless anxiety as the Red Storm entered for early warm-ups. Fans checking the odds websites noted that the odds favoring Villanova were on the rise, and they did not see Mustapha Heron warming up.
Sitting with us was a couple, young lady in red and her friend in blue.
The young lady’s father played on the Villanova NCAA championship team in 1986 NCAA championship victory over Georgetown. But she was now a St. John’s grad student. Her companion in blue snickered “traitor” with a smile; she made a startling admission about the upcoming game.
“Most Villanova people think we will blow St. John’s out,” the friend in blue said, “but I think the game will be close. We are overrated.”
A few seconds later a St. John’s fan exclaimed, “here he comes,” as Heron appeared seated on the bench, ready to compete.
The crowd stood for an inspiring version of God Bless America and remained standing as the starters for each team were announced. An air of anticipation was present in the crowd.
St. John’s won the opening tip but senior Marvin Clark missed a layup. LJ Figueroa took down an offensive rebound and fed Shamorie Ponds who missed a long two. The Wildcats jumped into the lead with a Collin Gillespie corner three.
A Figueroa drive off a miss by Mustapha Heron brought the Red Storm within one. After a Nova score, the Johnnies continued an early strategy of feeding Heron. He drove into the paint and hit a hook shot, keeping the Johnnies within a point, 5-4.
The game turned after Heron was called for an offensive foul on a driving layup at 15:15.
Villanova want on a devastating 18-3 run, capped off by two threes from the top of the arc by Jahvon Quinerly. It was 26-9 with just a quarter of the game played. One Red Storm fan observed, “St. John’s keeps attacking and missing layups but they can’t find clean layups because of the effectiveness of the Villanova zone.”
At the official’s 11:42 time out, team statistics told the story. The Wildcats were hitting 54% of their field goal attempts to the Johnnies 33%. The discrepancy in three point attempts was 38% for the Wildcats and 0/4 for the Johnnies.
The experienced Red Storm never stopped fighting as a full house at the Garden observed.
An inbounds pass to Ponds from under the basket found him fouled. He made one for two.
Tough defense forced Saddiq Bey of Villanova to take a fall away jumper with seconds on the shot clock, which came up short.
A Ponds putback of a Simon miss dropped the deficit to 15, and the crowd came alive with calls for “defense… defense.” St. John’s needed stops.
Villanova kept attacking, and a layup by Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree extended the lead to 31-14 at the 4:34 mark of the first half.
Figueroa responded with a steal and a layup and “defense… defense” again reverberated through the Garden.
After a Bey three, another Figueroa steal and a feed to Simon for a dunk kept the Johnnies in the game.
A St. John’s fan commented, “just get it to twelve or under when we go into halftime.”
Courtesy of Justin Simon, that is what happened. He took down a missed three by Bey with four seconds left in the half, took three dribbles and launched a 70-footer that caromed off the backboard and went in. An energized Red Storm team left the court just 11 down.
During halftime, one observer noted that the Wildcats had committed more fouls than the Red Storm. Would this come into play in the second half?
Villanova were a disciplined team at the beginning of the second half and continued to execute their game plan of ball movement. For the first 10 minutes of the second half, Joe Cremo led a balanced Wildcat offense that fought off a furious comeback by the Red Storm.
As disciplined as the Wildcats were, the Red Storm were determined. The defense tightened and Marvin Clark found his shooting touch, hitting two threes. But then he collected three fouls in three minutes and left the game at the 15 minute mark of the half with the deficit at eight, 42-34.
A Bey three and a Cremo free throw extended the Villanova lead to 48-34 at the 12:46 mark.
A minute later Shamorie Ponds made two free throws and on the Wildcats took the ball out. Pressure by Figueroa forced the Wildcats into the corner at half court. Figueroa then stole the ball and laid it in cutting the deficit to 48-38.
A technical foul was called on Villanova Coach Wright. Two foul shots by Ponds and a three by Heron at 11:16 and the lead was down to five, a 9-0 Johnnies run in less than a minute. Calls of “defense! defense!” permeated the Garden and would do so for the rest of the game.
Those watching on television found the rumbles in the Garden so loud, that the commentators could barely be heard.
A Ponds’ drive into the paint resulting in a running seven footer cut the deficit to three. A Cremo foul shot extended the lead to four for Villanova and then the crowd erupted after a Bryan Trimble steal led to a Figueroa three from the left wing. The deficit was one with nine minutes to play.
The Wildcats lost some of their discipline on the offensive end. The ball movement, prevalent earlier in the game, was gone. Senior leaders Booth and Paschall appeared determined to take the team on their back, something a Villanova fan stated, at times, happens too often for the team.
Villanova scored 26 points in the first 10 minutes of the game, but scored just 16 when the game was on the line in the last 10 minutes (three on an undefended three by Cremo with seconds remaining).
At 8:25 Heron hit a three from the right point and the Johnnies had finally caught up, 51-51. After Villanova retook the lead, another Figueroa three finally put the Johnnies in the lead at 7:28. The Johnnies leaned on Heron and Figueroa, instead of counting on Shamorie Ponds to bail the team out.
Paschall hit two free throws and Booth made a layup to retake the lead with 4:40 to play.
Figueroa responded with his third three of the game and then Clark, back in after sitting for several minutes due to his four fouls, made the play of the game.
Down by one Villanova’s Booth seemed to break free for a layup to retake the lead. Clark rotated over to block the attempt — leading to a runout by the Red Storm Heron to Justin Simon who was fouled. He made one out of two foul shots and the Johnnies lead was two.
After a Clark miss, Paschall was isolated in the right corner. He drove the baseline and was double teamed. With the shot clock running down he attempted a bounce pass to a teammate in the left corner that went out of bounds.
Simon missed a layup and Booth attempted to tie the score with a drive to be fouled by Clark. Booth, who had hit most of his free throws to that point of the game, with the game on the line, missed both attempts.
Heron was fouled and hit two free throws for a four point lead at the 1:27 mark. The Red Storm then went on to hit 10 of 10 free throw attempts in the last minute to seal the victory. A Villanova fan summarized the game simply, “Our stars lost the game for us.” A harsh assessment in a fickle game, but one that gives a sense of frustration.
While walking through Penn Station after the game, small groups of Johnnies fans could be heard chanting “Let’s Go Johnnies”. It was quite a day for St. John’s.
College Basketball is fickle
In an eight day span Providence beat St. John’s by 14 points at the Garden. Villanova beat Providence by 18 points and then blew a 19-point lead to the Red Storm and lost to St. John’s by six.
Is it matchups? The advantage in height and bulk Providence had over St. John’s should also have been present for Villanova.
Is it simply a team being hot from the field? St. John’s can be very erratic. Against Providence, the team hit 2/7 in the first half then pretty much abandoned the three point shot until the last minute of play, going 0/5 in the second half.
Could it be coaching strategy? Was the fact that Providence was often switching defenses from man to man to different types of zones causing confusion for Red Storm players?
Was the fact that Mustapha Heron sat out the Providence game the difference maker?
Was it that college basketball is a game played primarily by 18-21 year old young men, who are also students and have other responsibilities besides playing college basketball?
Could it be all of the above?
“I Could See Fear in his Eyes”
“Look at the intensity in Figueroa’s eyes,” a fan stated as Villanova guard Collin Gillespie was bringing the ball across center court in the second half. “I would not like to face that.”
The entire Red Storm team intensified the defensive effort, holding Villanova to 20% shooting after the Wildcats shot 43 percent in the first half.
Phil Booth and Eric Paschell shot 4/22 on field goal attempts for the game and scored 24 points between them.
They were averaging 35 points per game between them, at 44% for Booth and 46% from Paschall.
After the game LJ Figueroa said succinctly, “I could see fear in their eyes.” Figueroa, quickly becoming a chaos-bringer on defense, led an intense defense that brought the Red Storm back from a game that looked unwinnable.
Stay with the game plan: attack, attack
The Red Storm game plan was evident from the beginning. Attack, attack, attack. After every offensive rebound it was “off to the races.”
Even when fast break attempts were missing, the intensity never let up. Did it wear down the Wildcats in the second half?
In the second half several Wildcats were settled with three fouls. Did this take away from their defensive intensity?
When Marvin Clark re-entered the game towards the end of the second half after sitting with four fouls, one of the first things he did is make what many feel was the play of the game — blocking a Booth drive with the game on the line.
He fouled out shortly thereafter challenging another Booth layup. It paid off as Booth missed both free throws and the Johnnies went on to extend the two point lead. Clark demonstrated no loss of intensity even with four fouls.
The Red Storm look to Providence for an opportunity for an away win. “Look them in the eyes” on defense might be a new motto for this team.
Playing the tough in-your-face defense the team is capable of doing will keep St. John’s in games. Stop focusing on what combination of wins and losses is need for a good seeding in the tournament. One game at a time.