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Villanova figures out St. John’s after early Red Storm lead: takeaways

Full court pressure comes up short, as do team scoring leaders… Dunn excels, what about Roberts?

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Wendell Cruz

Game recap: Villanova 79, St. John’s 59

Prior to the St. John’s/Villanova game, two Villanova fans were overheard stating that their worry, their big upcoming game, was not the Wildcats’ game with St. John’s, or the following two games — it was 11 days away, at Seton Hall.

When asked what they thought about St. John’s, they replied that they respected the St. John’s pressure defense but were confident that “Jay Wright would have the team prepared.”

The opening ceremonies began with a 60 second moment of silence remembering Kobe Bryant, the soon-to-be Hall of Famer who died in a helicopter crash on Sunday. Following these moments was an empowering rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner by Anna Negron, providing energy after the somberness of the moment.

Remembering Kobe Bryant
Wendell Cruz

First Half

The Red Storm started off the first half with determined energy. Rasheem Dunn drove down the right side of the paint and, as Villanova defenders moved to deny him, he deftly hit Josh Roberts, who dunked the ball for a 2-0 lead. On the next Johnnies possession, LJ Figueroa attempted the same but his pass to Roberts was knocked out of bounds by the Wildcats.

It appeared that the Johnnies game plan was to drive hard to the rim and hit Roberts for easy layups, a strategy that worked against Seton Hall.

Josh Roberts dunks
Wendell Cruz

At 18:38 Mustapha Heron drove into the right corner and passed to Dunn in the left corner, who drilled a three pointer for a 5-0 Red Storm lead. Figueroa then blocked a breakaway layup by the Wildcats, Justin Moore. Things were looking bright for the Johnnies.

After a free throw by five-star freshman Jeremiah Robinson Earl, Villanova dropped into a zone defense and Figueroa hit a three over it from the right corner. The Johnnies led 8-1 at the 17:02 mark.

So far, so good.

Villanova clawed back into the game. Saddiq Bay got hot, scoring five straight points and tying the game with a layup. Two consecutive layups — one by Nick Rutherford, after he stole the ball from Robinson-Earl, and a layup by Marcellus Earlington assisted by Greg Williams, put the Johnnies back up 19-15 at the 9:22 mark.

Marcellus Earlington for two
Wendell Cruz

It was their last lead of the contest.

The Johnnies were playing good defense. But a couple of missed threes by Villanova led to long offensive rebounds picked up by the Wildcats.

The Wildcats took advantage of these second opportunities while the Johnnies were going cold from the field. The Red Storm did not score for four and a half minutes as the Wildcats hit three three-pointers to take a 28-19 lead.

Rasheem Dunn, who was to become the team’s leading scorer, broke the run with a layup at 4:54 and the Johnnies battled back to close to within six on another Dunn layup at 2:27. However, Villanova scored the last seven points of the half for a 39-26 lead.


At the half St. John’s fans bemoaned several missed layups in the first half, which, if made would have cut the Villanova half time lead in half. Despite the 13 point deficit, Johnnies fans expressed hope for a bounce back in the second half.

Second Half

Like the first half, the Johnnies began with a Dunn jumper then a Dunn drive and feed to Roberts for a layup, sandwiched around a Collin Gillespie three-pointer.

Rasheem Dunn sizes up Collin Gillespie
Wendell Cruz

The Johnnies were battling. The Red Storm reduced the deficit to eight on a Dunn three-pointer at 14:38. A Rutherford steal immediately after the Dunn three gave the Johnnies an opportunity. But Rutherford missed a tough reverse lay-up that would have cut the Nova lead to six.

It was the last hurrah for the Johnnies’ press.

Villanova adjusted with their forwards going downcourt when they inbounded the ball, then quickly coming back up court to take the inbounds pass at just over midcourt.

The Nova forwards avoided the double team, which was set up to challenge Nova guards. Keeping the Red Storm defense moving led to easier ball movement.

It also led to advantages for the Wildcats as the Johnnies hustled back into defensive positions to catch up. Bay, Gillespie and Robinson-Earl found several open jumpers between them and, what could have been a six point deficit, ballooned to a 68-44 Villanova lead in a period of just seven minutes.

During the official’s time out at 7:56 the St. John’s Dance Team put on a riveting performance that brought the crowd, even Villanova fans, to their feet. It was the only standing ovation of the night as the public announcer reported that the dance team had come in first place in the College Hip Hop Competition a few weeks earlier.

Dance team champions
Wendell Cruz

During the end game Julian Champagnie became effective in scoring and Dunn ended with a layup, leading the team with 24 points on 10/16 shooting. Dunn, whose aggressive style led to many layups only went to the foul line once during the game.

Speed wins, speed loses.

The Johnnies played in your face man to man defense upon Villanova crossing midcourt throughout most of the first 10 minutes as they built a lead, and then recaptured it after the Wildcats tied the score at 15.

At that time, Villanova had hit 6/16 field goals (38%) and 2/6 three-point tries (33%).

The rebounds were 10-7 in favor of Villanova.

The Johnnies went into various forms of pressure which did result in some steals — but opened the door for open threes, mostly from the corner for Villanova. Nova shot 4/9 on threes (44%), much of the time after breaking through the Johnnies’ press. On all field goals during this time when pressure was applied, Villanova shot 9/19 or 47%.

Pressure defense against DePaul, a poor shooting team, worked.

But against a prepared Villanova team, it did not. St. John’s has the personnel (Rutherford and Williams) to apply tight pressure in the half court and Roberts is a shot blocking protector under the rim. However, once the team falls behind, this threesome does not provide offensive firepower.

Rutherford and Roberts try to stop Gillispie
Wendell Cruz

Big three: Heron/ Figueroa/ Dunn

Heron scored three points and Figueroa scored 12 points on combined 6 for 21 shooting (26%).

That percentage from the team’s top players is not going to result in a win against the number eight ranked team in the country. Dunn did his part, shooting 10/16 with an impressive 3/5 from three-point range for 24 points. His performance against a good defensive team was impressive.

Heron was hitting jumpers from the corner in practice before the game and at half time. He seemed in rhythm at these times.

Why he was not successful during the actual game needs to be examined by the coaching staff. Was there an attempt by Villanova defenders to deny the second leading scorer on the Johnnies any open shot opportunities? Do the Johnnies have to come up with plans to feed him in better shooting positions on the court?

LJ Figueroa shot 2/8 on threes with an additional one being blocked. Overall, he played a good game with five defensive rebounds, two blocks and a steal in 31 minutes of play. He is hitting a respectable 35% of his threes on the year so what went wrong? Does Villanova defense get some credit for holding him back?

LJ Figueroa defended
Wendell Cruz

Using Josh Roberts

Roberts played 14 minutes in the game. He scored four points playing off nice set ups by a driving Dunn. In those 14 minutes he pulled down four defensive rebounds. He had more rebounds per minutes played than any other Johnnie.

At the beginning of each half the game plan seemed to drive, and feed Roberts after the Nova defenders doubled over to guard a driving Dunn and Figueroa. This had two positive outcomes yet in both halves the play was abandoned a few minutes into each half. Roberts and other front court players were seen setting up at the high post setting screens and having plays run off passes to them.

The Johnnies also had some success feeding Earlington (first half) and Champagnie (second half). Developing this part of the game would take pressure off the guards to carry the offensive load, but the team seemed to only sporadically go in this direction.

Wendell Cruz


The Johnnies played reasonably well up to the 14 minute mark of the second half. That is when a seven minute blitz by the #8 team in the country did them in. During the game there were several missed layups which the team usually makes.

The performance of Rasheem Dunn with 24 points on 63% shooting including 3/5 from three-point land gives reason to hope that a third scorer to go along with Heron and Figueroa may be perfecting his game.

It may be that a slowed down approach with less full court pressing may be a winning formula against teams as skilled as Villanova.

The Johnnies did seem to match up well with the Wildcats and most of the Nova points came when the Wildcats broke through the Johnnies pressure. For the game the Johnnies had only 11 steals with Rutherford picking up five of them.

The immediate challenges for the team are to cut down on unforced offensive turnovers and to find a way to engage the front court throughout the game as they did at the beginning of both halves. The next four games with three at home are all winnable but consistency needs to set in for the team to redeem its season.