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Neptune, Villanova notch first Big East win in 78-63 victory over St. John’s

The Wildcats used a big game-changing run to close the first half, which propelled them to victory over St. John’s.

NCAA Basketball: St. John at Villanova Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports

It was a chilly night on the Main Line, but that did not stop the Wildcats from heating up inside the Finneran Pavilion.

Villanova ended the first half strong, then pulled away in the second to enjoy a 78-63 win over St. John’s in its Big East opener.

“I thought that was a great team,” said head coach Kyle Neptune. “They make it really tough for you, especially offensively, they keep coming at you, they play a lot of different defenses; full court, half court, trapping, blitzing. I was really proud that our guys were poised.”

It was yet another slow start for the Wildcats, as turnovers and lackadaisical three-point defense were rearing their ugly head yet again.

“There is nothing you can do to practice how (St. John’s) play,” Neptune said. “We don’t play like that. We don’t have those types of guys and that style. It just takes a second to feel it, especially young guys.”

Entering Wednesday night, St. John’s ranked ninth out of 11 in made three-pointers per game in the Big East at 6.1 per game. The Johnnies would hit five in the first half alone, including a David Jones triple with just over six minutes remaining to give the Red Storm an 11-point advantage.

“[We have] a lot of young guys so it took us a little minute just to get comfortable and understand what they were doing,’ he added.

David Jones turned, clapped his hands, and back pedaled down the court confidently. It looked like all hope was lost for the Wildcats as the tenacious press of St. John’s seemed to be getting the best of them.

Then a switch flipped.

A hook shot from Dixon cut the llead to single digits and started what would end up being a 15-2 run.

“I don’t really think we changed anything,” Dixon said of the timely takeover. “I’ll just say we like to do what we do and just try to make the right play at the time.”

Brandon Slater was instrumental to the fateful run the Wildcats went on. In a two-minute span Slater scored seven of his nine first half points while taking a charge and forcing a turnover with good defense.

Eric Dixon, Brandon Slater, Caleb Daniels and Chris Arcidiacono are the four undisputed older leaders of this team. Although the St. John’s press may be intimidating for some of the younger talent on the roster, it was mportant for the Wildcats to have their calming demeanor.

“Veteran leadership, that is always the best way to go,” said Neptune “Thank God we got those guys.”

The second half was much of the same for Villanova, as it would open on an 18-10 run and extend their lead to as high 15. St. John’s kept the intensity up, but never really got close enough to make that final push past the Wildcats after the break.

Andre Curbelo and Posh Alexander were two highly touted defensive stoppers coming into this one and perhaps the biggest mismatch on paper for the Wildcats. The tandem did not have their best night as they were a combined -27 while only mustering up six points each.

“They gotta be better,” St. John’s coach Mike Anderson said of his backcourt duo. “They gotta be better. In conference play, whether we play at home or on the road, they got to be better.”

Villanova had four players finish in double figures. Eric Dixon led the way for the Wildcats finishing with 18 points, six rebounds and two assists. Brandon Slater added 16 points and four rebounds. Caleb Daniels both finished with 13 points.

Although Eric Dixon and company shined in this one, perhaps Villanova’s player of the game was sophomore Jordan Longino. Longino had been dealing with knee soreness in the preseason that lingered into the regular season. On Wednesday, he showed no ill-effects as he finished with 13 points on a perfect shooting night.

“Earlier in the preseason, when he was healthy, he looked like he could be one of our best players,” said Neptune the sophomore guard. “When he’s right, he’s one of the more talented players on our team, and one of the more talented players in the league.”

At Villanova media day back in October, VU Hoops spoke with a good majority of Jordan Longino’s teammates about who they think would be a breakout candidate for this season. Most of them picked Jordan Longino, and we are beginning to see why.

If Longino can remain healthy and continue to produce like he did tonight, this Villanova team is going to be very scary come March (especially if a certain someone can be added to the active roster before then).

St. John’s was led by ‘double-double machine’ Joel Soriano who lived up to his nickname, finishing with 17 points and 13 rebounds. Freshman A.J. Storr added 15 points off the bench and played a vital role in getting the Red Storm an early lead, but hit the bench once things started fizzling out for the Red Storm and as the Wildcats put together that massive 17-2 run.

The Wildcats will have a week off until their next game, a big matchup against UConn on the road. They don’t hit the court until next Wednesday, Dec. 28. Tip-off is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. ET>