After a rough first half shooting performance, the Villanova Wildcats surged in the second half for a comeback win in the Big East Tournament quarterfinals, beating the Red Storm, 66-65.
With two seconds remaining, Villanova senior Brandon Slater sunk two clutch free throws from the line to give the Wildcats a 66-65 lead. The Johnnies tried to answer with a desperate half-court heave, but it was off the mark.
Slater, who decided the game in the final seconds, was not fazed when the Johnnies put him at the line and attempted to ice his second free-throw with a timeout.
“We work on free throws every day in practice,” said Slater. “So when I step to the line my teammates and coaches, they were telling me, we do this every single day. They gave me that confidence and I was able to knock it down.”
Fellow senior Caleb Daniels led the scoring attack for ‘Nova, contributing 19 points and seven rebounds. While typically coming off the bench, Daniels was promoted to the starting lineup following news of Jermaine Samuels’ back spasms.
He stepped up in a big way and did not panic when his team got off to a slow start.
“We practice situations like this every day,” said Daniels. “So we know we’re going to fight for each other — every possession, one possession at a time, one stop at a time. And we’re just going to gut it out each and every game.”
And Villanova undoubtedly had to fight hard to get back into the game, as the ‘Cats shot 23% from the field in the first half and faced a 17-point deficit with 15:38 remaining in the second half.
However, late in the second half, the Wildcats began to break the Red Storm’s press faster, convert on good looks, and trust in their upperclassmen.
Just 31 seconds after St. John’s took its biggest lead, ‘Nova embarked on a 21-6 run, ignited by a Justin Moore 3-pointer and capped off with two foul shots from Daniels. His free throws put Villanova up 51-50 for its first lead of the game with 8:11 remaining.
Along with Daniels, Collin Gillespie and Moore were also in double figures for the Wildcats, scoring 15 and 14 points respectively.
Villanova head coach was impressed with the performances of his more senior leaders, but he was not surprised.
“We just toughed it out, said Wright. “Our upperclassmen were great down the stretch, Collin made some big plays. Slate was great. And Caleb hit some big shots. I’m just proud of these guys.”
One leader for Villanova who was not at full-strength was Samuels, as his injury prevented him from entering the starting lineup.
“The trainer said he can’t move,” said Wright. “He didn’t even come out for the start of the game. He wasn’t on the bench at the beginning of the game. We were just ready to go without him.
“And then he just appeared on the bench. I don’t know what the time was, but whenever he appeared I just put him in the game. And we just said let’s just see what he looks like.”
Samuels eventually eased back into the game in the second half, still securing eight rebounds and seven points in his limited performance.
For St. John’s, junior Julian Champagnie shined, but his 23 points and nine rebounds were not enough.
“I feel like we gave it our all,” Champagnie said. “We played hard. And I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
While St. John’s was clearly an underdog in this matchup, Coach Wright never underestimated the Johnnies.
“I mean, it’s no surprise to us,” said Wright. “We weren’t disappointed in our play at all. If you watched [St. John’s] last night, watched them the last couple of games, they’re playing great basketball. It’s a credit to Mike to get his team playing the way they are.”
St. John’s head coach Mike Anderson was proud of his team, yet not thrilled with some of the calls made over the course of the game.
“The thing I was more disappointed by tonight was the free-throw line discrepancy,” Anderson said. “That took place here and it took place at their place. I thought our defense was pretty good. And that’s the difference.”
St. John’s season, bar a favorable nod on Selection Sunday, is effectively over.
With the close win, Villanova advances to the semifinals of the Big East Tournament, where it will face either Seton Hall or UConn on Friday at 9 p.m.