Joel Soriano exited the game, raising one arm in the air, saluting the energized Garden crowd, and high-fiving a few fans sitting courtside.
The first person waiting for him on the sideline was Rick Pitino, who melted in Soriano’s arms as the two embraced.
Joel Soriano needed a game like this. Rick Pitino needed a game like this. St. John’s needed a game like this.
On Wednesday night, the Red Storm smashed a three-game losing streak with a 20-point bludgeoning of Villanova, 70-50.
The triumphant Soriano turned his three-game cold spell that coincided with the losing skid into an afterthought, getting the better of all-conference big man Eric Dixon for a second time this season by scoring a team-high 21 points and pulling down nine rebounds.
Rick Pitino made the stunning decision to start freshman Simeon Wilcher for the first time this season. The freshman from New Jersey made his coach’s decision look shrewd. Within the first four minutes, Wilcher recorded a steal, a block, and an offensive rebound that later allowed St. John’s to draw a foul against Villanova. Both teams played tight through the first eight minutes, with St. John’s holding a narrow 13-11 lead before bursting to an 8-0 run thanks to threes from Glenn Taylor and Drissa Traore.
The Red Storm frustrated the Wildcats early in the first half, forcing a tie-up on Eric Dixon before getting the big man to take a shot clock violation. St. John’s soon built up a 28-13 lead after Joel Soriano spotted up for a 16-foot mid-range jumper.
Villanova quickly trimmed that deficit down to single-digits with a 7-0 run before the under-4 media timeout thanks to a Jordan Longino jumper, a Brendan Hausen three off the catch, and a pair of Justin Moore free throws after St. John’s began to get too handsy on defense.
Both teams limped into the intermission by scoring six combined points in the final 4:48 of the first half, with St. John’s leading 32-22.
That malaise carried over in the second half, as it took a Chris Ledlum dunk off a lob from Daniss Jenkins to wake up the Red Storm — and the crowd — to make it a 36-28 game with 16:18 left in the second half. Joel Soriano amplified the applause from the Garden by rolling to the basket and nearly ripping the rim off its hinges with a thunderous dunk to give St. John’s a 38-28 lead.
After another pull-up jumper by Soriano, Villanova made their most threatening run of the night. St. John’s failed to protect the paint as Hakim Hart and Eric Dixon broke out for easy layups to shrink the deficit to 40-35 with 12:46 left, giving the traveling Wildcat fans a reason to cheer for the first time tonight.
Those cheers — and Villanova’s hopes of a comeback — would be short-lived. The Red Storm slammed the door on this game by ending it on a 30-15 run.
The Wildcats’ three-point woes carried over from their first encounter with St. John’s, shooting 4-of-25 (16%) from three, but a newfound difficulty for the Wildcats was their struggles inside the arc. Villanova went 18 of 48 (37%) from the field, with St. John’s vacuum sealing any space inside the arc.
T.J. Bamba was the only Wildcat with multiple attempts to shoot better than 50% from the field. Mark Armstrong, Justin Moore, Tyler Burton, and Hakim Hart were each restricted to only one made bucket.
As for St. John’s, they shared the love. Seventeen of their 28 made baskets came off assists, nine players scored, and only Joel Soriano (21 points) and the returning Jordan Dingle (12 points) registered double-figures.
The Red Storm can enjoy the fruits of this dominant victory for an entire week, as they’ll be back in action next Wednesday night when they take on the Xavier Musketeers on the road.