Judging by the standings of the Big East Conference, St. John’s isn’t a very good basketball team, ranked ninth of the 10 schools in the league.
St. John’s doesn’t win many games, but what it does do is make the other team earn what it usually gets. That was the case for Villanova on Wednesday night, as the Wildcats finally pulled away for an ugly win that coach Jay Wright hopes will help toughen his team for what lies ahead.
“We survive, and we learn from it, and we move on,” Wright said after the 71-60 win.
The Wildcats are young, and they are talented, but they aren’t battle-worn yet. Against a St. John’s team that starts pressing as soon as it gets off the bus, Villanova became tentative at times and needed to regroup in the final eight minutes to break open what was still a two-point game.
It was a little ironic for a Villanova team struggling to become tougher that the halftime ceremony on Wednesday honored Kyle Lowry, one of the toughest players ever to wear the school uniform. His No. 1 jersey was retired, and Lowry met with Wright after the game and had his picture taken with his former coach and teammates Allan Ray, Randy Foy, and Mike Nardi.
The ceremony was less than 24 hours after Lowry earned an offensive foul against the Milwaukee Bucks for lowering his head and attempting to tunnel through defender George Hill, practically lifting Hill off the court in the process.
“It was classic,” Wright said. “We loved the headline that said, ‘Kyle Lowry is losing his mind.’ We said, ‘No, that’s what he does every pickup game all summer, and the difference is he makes the call and it’s a foul on the other guy, and he holds the ball until they say it’s your ball.' And they call the foul on him in the league. It’s a comment on his toughness and competitiveness, and something our young guys have to learn.”
The time for learning is getting short. Villanova has three regular-season games left until the Big East tournament, including a rematch with first-place Seton Hall. The Wildcats could still get the top seed in the conference tournament and a leg up on staying in the East Regional bracket for the NCAA Tournament, but beating the Pirates will require some additional toughness, too.
“I thought we made some strides against Xavier [on Saturday], and we were proud of that. But I thought we took a step back tonight,” Wright said. “That’s a young team. You can learn when you win, too, and we’re going to learn a lot from this tonight.”
St. John’s is very quick defensively, and can switch all five positions. That mobility kept Villanova out of the lane and prevented easy baskets and getting to the foul line, especially in the first half, when the Wildcats turned the ball over nine times and didn’t have a single offensive rebound.
Collin Gillespie was a particular target of the defense, and the team’s second-leading scorer finished with eight points on 2-of-12 shooting from the field, including 0-for-7 on three-point attempts.
Villanova finally got settled when freshman Jeremiah Robinson-Earl made his way to the line to connect on 7-of-8 free throws in a stretch of five possessions during which the Wildcats went from a two-point lead to a nine-point lead. They made enough shots the rest of the way, including a bunch from freshman Justin Moore, who finished with 21 points, to keep St. John’s at bay.
“They had guys who made plays, and we had guys who almost made plays,” said St. John’s coach Mike Anderson. “We hung around and did a good job of that, but they knocked down big shots. That’s what they do.”
In the games to come, Villanova will have to do that for all 40 minutes, and that will require a mental and physical toughness that is still developing. They just need a little more Kyle Lowry.
Before he left the Finneran Pavilion, Lowry was also asked about a little dustup between him and fellow Villanova product Donte DiVincenzo in that same Tuesday game between the Bucks and the Raptors.
“It was nothing. I fouled him hard, and he didn’t like it,” Lowry said. “It’s all the competitive nature. We’ll get our one-on-one matchup this summer and settle that one.”