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Villanova wins a 66-65 Big East quarterfinal thriller over St. John’s

A furious second-half comeback kept Villanova alive at Madison Square Garden.

Brandon Slater of Villanova celebrates after an old fashioned 3-point play against St. John's during the 2nd half of a Big East Tournament quarterfinal game on March 10, 2022 at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
Brandon Slater of Villanova celebrates after an old fashioned 3-point play against St. John's during the 2nd half of a Big East Tournament quarterfinal game on March 10, 2022 at Madison Square Garden in New York City.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

NEW YORK -- It was over, or at least Villanova floundered in deep Big East Tournament waters Thursday night, down 17 points to St. John’s, early in the second half, Madison Square Garden in full frenzy. That “shoot ‘em up or sleep in the streets” mantra the Wildcats like to use, it had them heading toward the Lincoln Tunnel, Night One.

Then a fast and furious comeback changed the whole scene, the frenzy switching allegiances. In the end, Villanova got a whistle, a foul call. Brandon Slater, who had gotten to a loose ball after a Jermaine Samuels miss, went to the line, 2.8 seconds left. Make. Timeout. Swish.

Villanova players looked for Slater, engulfed him, as Villanova advanced with a 66-65 Big East quarterfinal classic.

Asked about the difference between taking those foul shots in any empty practice gym and the full Garden, how he steeled his nerves, Slater said, “We put pressure on ourselves to make it like a game every single time in practice. ... We literally do it every single day in practice.”

Easy to think, “Hey, Villanova is never out of games.” This was still something to see, an 18-2 run had torn the Wildcats back into it, St. John’s adding turnovers, Villanova taking the lead in a ferocious New York minute.

“We weren’t down, we weren’t disappointed at halftime,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said afterward. “We just got out of sync. You have to give St. John’s credit. They got in us.”

The whole thing hurdled toward the last minute, the lead trading hands. St. John’s did not give this away. There was a Slater block, then a Samuels steal up top. What would decide things? A drive and three-point play by St. John’s guard Stef Smith put the Johnnies up a point, two minutes left. A couple of Villanova misses followed.

A Julian Champagnie three-pointer could have been the dagger, 30 seconds left. Airball. Timeout, Villanova. Wildcats down a point. Then that last play.

“It’s a really emotional locker room there,” St. John’s coach Mike Anderson said of his own group. “You can understand why. I thought our guys left their hearts, guts, and everything on the floor. And they just came up a little short.”

It really looked over …

St. John’s pulled ahead by 44-27 early in the second half. Then Villanova jumpers began finding the net. Justin Moore hit a three, Caleb Daniels a two, Gillespie a three. Timeout St. John’s, 44-35, just over 13 minutes left.

Villanova drew closer, Moore scoring inside, Daniels hitting a corner three. St. John’s missed connections, the ball bouncing out of bounds. The Johnnie’s lead was down to 46-40, all of it up for grabs.

No first-half rhythm for Villanova

Villanova made just 7 of 30 first-half shots, spacing out their misses evenly throughout. With Daniels making three of them from beyond the arc, two on consecutive possessions, that was kind of all that kept the Wildcats within range. As St. John’s clogged off the inside effectively, those three-point looks were plentiful, contested or not.

All this was the pattern from the start. Villanova made just 2 of its first 13 shots, Moore and Eric Dixon both scoring inside. No jumpers. Six missed threes before Daniels hit one, drawing Villanova even at 9 with 13 minutes, 18 seconds left. Then Villanova started missing again.

One factor …

Samuels did not start for Villanova because of back spasms. Villanova’s early offensive struggles were a reminder that Samuels offers a release valve with his drives to the basket. Jordan Longino got some early run off Villanova’s bench, but picked up two immediate fouls in his first minute on the court. Samuels eventually got out there when Villanova trailed by 19-10.

The score wasn’t a factor in getting Samuels in there, Wright said later. He wasn’t on the bench at the start.

“The trainer said he can’t move,” Wright said. “We were just ready to go without him. Then he just appeared. I don’t know what the time was. Whenever he appeared, I just put him in the game. We said let’s see what he looks like. He didn’t look great early; he looked shaky. He kept saying, ‘I’m good, I’m good.’ I thought by halftime, he looked normal. He was really good in the second half.”

Wright also noted that he wasn’t sure Dixon was going to be able to play because “he was throwing up all day.”

As Moore goes …

If opponents can keep Moore from going off, it goes a long way from keeping Villanova in check. If they keep Moore and Gillespie in check, it’s a game-changer. In the first half, Moore and Gillespie combined to make 4 of 16 shots. After Moore and Gillespie each had missed their first three three-pointers, they hit on consecutive trips to cut a 28-16 St. John’s lead in half with 3 ½ minutes left before halftime.

St John’s answered with a three, then trapped Gillespie in the press, got it, scored on a Champagnie put back of his own miss, pushing the margin back out.

Garden crowds are the best …

A St. John’s fan stayed on the refs about Gillespie. “Watch Gillespie’s chicken arm, c’mon. He hooks everybody.”

A Villanova fan complained about the complaint.

The St. John’s fan: “It’s a basketball game. We’re not at the opera.”