With a 20-point lead, it didn’t seem like it would at first, but the game quickly became an emotional roller coaster.
From the highs of Collin Gillespie and Justin Moore being introduced as members of the starting five after they entered Tuesday as game-time decisions due to recent ankle injuries, then Eric Dixon’s hot start — all before the game quickly shifted in the final minutes.
The cushy lead quickly evaporated, turnovers and missed shots piled up, and St. John’s rallied to give the ‘Cats a scare. The Red Storm trimmed the deficit down to as low as three.
The Wildcats held on with a couple of free throws and fended off the Red Storm surge to win, 75-69, at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday.
“It’s just amazing, the end of the game,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “I’ve been doing this a long time, and I don’t even know what to say about what happened at the end of the game. I have to watch the film. You can play the game well in the game, it goes a certain way for that long, and all of a sudden, everything changes.
“I don’t have an answer, I wish I could. I don’t know how two teams play that way for 36 minutes or whatever it was, and then everything completely changed. I guess it’s college basketball.”
St. John’s used a 23-6 run in the closing minutes to come back. During that stretch, the ‘Cats had one made shot and eight turnovers.
“Obviously, we ran out of time,” St. John’s coach Mike Anderson said. “... We played with some fire, but we got to do that for 40 minutes.”
The spirited comeback was spearheaded by Aaron Wheeler, who seemed to be the only Red Storm player that could get into a consistent groove offensively on Tuesday night.
Wheeler netted a game-high 31 points, including a 6-of-10 shooting performance from long range. The rest of his teammates struggled though, as the Red Storm shot just 32.0% as a team — and 22.4% excluding Wheeler’s contributions. But none of that mattered during St. John’s comeback bid.
“We feared he (could have a game like that), but we didn’t want to see it,” Wright said of Wheeler. “He’s an outstanding shooter and you try to not let the guys like that get it going, because once they get going, then there’s really not a lot you can do. Some of those shots he was hitting late were really deep, where you don’t want to guards someone because you can overextend. But that was more on us. Letting him get it going early, that was our biggest mistake.”
It seemed to be the theme for the entire game.
Despite a cold-shooting first half for St. John’s, the Red Storm was able to stay in the game, as ‘Nova took a 34-28 lead at halftime.
After the break, the Red Storm was able to trim the deficit down to three, but the ‘Cats responded with a 13-0 run that spanned more than five minutes.
The seemingly game-changing scoring surge allowed Villanova to push its lead into double figures and the margin peaked as high as 20.
While it was lackluster shooting performance for the ‘Cats from beyond the arc, they made up for it with their aggressiveness at the basket. Villanova outscored the Johnnies’ in the paint, 40-22.
“They were just pounding it inside, and they weren’t shooting outside,” Anderson said. “Everything was in the paint and they just kept attacking us early on.”
Moore and Gillespie had entirely different performances on Tuesday night. Moore got going after a slow start and finished with 16 points, five boards and five turnovers. Gillespie was scoreless, but remained active on the glass, with 10 boards.
“They both really gutted it out,” Wright said. “When he played in the Marquette game, that was the last time (Moore) was on the floor. We did all the treatment we could. We brought them in here for shootaround, they didn’t do it, but we just tried to see if they could shoot it afterwards. Warmups, they came up to us and said they want to try it.
“Collin — first breakaway, he stumbled. He said, ‘I can go.’ They weren’t 100%, but they have a lot of guts, both of them.”
Eric Dixon enjoyed another solid outing, tying Moore with a team-high 16 points on an efficient 7-of-9 shooting performance. He also had seven boards and three assists. Brandon Slater had 15 points and seven rebounds. Caleb Daniels and Jermaine Samuels each had 13 points.
For St. John’s, regular season leading scorer Julian Champagnie hit some shots late to finish with 12 points, but recorded just a 4-for-15 clip on Tuesday night. Stef Smith also had 12 points. Montez Mathis missed each of his first 11 shot attempts and ended with two points.
The Red Storm played without standout guard Posh Alexander, who is also nursing an ankle injury.
With the win, the Wildcats improve to 18-6 overall and 11-3 in Big East play. Villanova will return home for a Saturday matinee against Seton Hall at the Wells Fargo Center. Tip-off is scheduled for 1 p.m. ET.