Villanova is no stranger to Madison Square Garden and over the years, it has gotten some clutch play from its seniors.
While it wasn’t a pretty game, Villanova head coach Kyle Neptune was happy to see his Wildcats grind out another victory, this time a 57-49 win over St. John’s to complete the regular season series sweep. He shared his praises for his team and a certain individual.
“It was awesome,” Neptune said. “The last couple of games, I think Jimmy has come to his own. He’s really been good for us, and it’s not really just the scoring, it’s really defensively. He’s been playing hard the entire time, running back the entire time in a stance, he’s been our rock defensively.”
Wait, who’s Jimmy?
“James. That’s my real name,” Villanova fifth-year senior Brandon Slater said, quickly chiming in.
Put some respect on the man’s name.
“When I play like Brandon, (Neptune) gets on me,” Slater said. “When I play like Jimmy, he’s like, ‘bruh.’”
“Jimmy” led the charge in the second half. While the Wildcats had plenty of ups-and-downs in a closely-contested game, he remained a consistent presence and kept ‘Nova within reach, even as St. John’s led for most of the game. Slater scored all of his 14 points in the second half on 5-of-7 shooting. He posted a game-high plus-minus rating of +18.
Slater also had the game-sealing steal and coast-to-coast slam dunk finish with 17.5 seconds remaining to secure the win for the ‘Cats.
“Honestly, when you’re playing in the game, you just try to do the best you can that play and if you mess up, next play and if not, you gotta build on that,” Slater said of his big second half. “I think I was just trying to play off of teammates and coaches, that was the only thing on my mind.”
The bright lights, the Mecca of basketball and a perfect primetime Friday night slot — the circumstances may have been flawless for college basketball at Madison Square Garden, but that didn’t mean it had to be pretty.
Villanova and St. John’s met for the second time this season, and while the Wildcats won by a rather comfortable 15-point margin after pulling away in the second half back on Dec. 21, Friday night was much more closer.
“We’re a young team, we’ve been trying to get better all year,” Neptune said. “Last game, I thought we found a way to win, when we didn’t necessarily play our best, but that was a huge step for us. This game, from start to finish defensively, we were really good and that’s really what we asked our guys to do, just lock in defensively and bring it.
“Win, lose or draw, if we play like that defensively, I’ll be proud of our guys. We stuck with it and continued to play hard. It was tough. You saw guys gassed and I think in the past, we maybe would have given in a little bit, and our guys fought through it.”
The Wildcats limited the Red Storm to just two made shots over the final eight minutes of play.
“Going down the stretch, you gotta be able to make plays, make shots,” St. John’s coach Mike Anderson said. “We had multiple opportunities, but couldn’t score. Give Villanova credit, they kept grinding, grinding, grinding and got a break at the end there. Our guys put a great effort.
“We missed a lot of lays, a lot of shots. Look at the short shots we missed. We had opportunities but didn’t cash in. I saw one possession where we had three rebounds and still came away with nothing. You gotta put the ball in and we didn’t.”
While the ‘Cats may have struggled with late-game offensive execution in the past, they capitalized on the Red Storm’s shortcomings at the end.
They closed the game on a game-changing, and game-sealing, 17-5 run over the final 8:09 of play. An and-one by Slater, followed by an Eric Dixon basket gave the ‘Cats the lead for good, a 47-46 edge with 4:31 remaining.
“Our focus to detail,” Slater said of the biggest difference between the Wildcats’ first and second half of play. “I felt like we were trying to get stops, trying to rebound in the first half, but I don’t think we did it to our best capabilities. In that second half, we looked at each other and told each other this is a reality check. We’re not doing this the best we can, so in the second half, we tried to do it even harder and even more together for our teammates and coaches.”
It was certainly a stronger finish, but both teams struggled out of the opening tip.
At the first-half under-8 media time out, with the score tied at 12, there had been more combined turnovers (14) than made shots (8) and almost as many missed shots between both teams (23) as total points (24).
While both teams had there buckets here and there, it was simply the precursor for the remainder of the game.
A foul call with 0.8 seconds left allowed St. John’s to get two free throws to tie things up at 28 going into halftime.
While St. John’s was ahead for most of the game, second-half included, the game was virtually within reach, with neither team leading by double figures.
Villanova closed out strong to improve to 10-10 overall and 4-5 in Big East play.
Aside from Slater, Caleb Daniels had 16 points and four rebounds. Eric Dixon had seven points on 1-of-10 shooting, but was 5-of-7 from the free throw line. He also had 11 rebounds. Chris Arcidiacono had nine points on 3-of-6 shooting from long range, with two assists, two steals and two turnovers. Mark Armstrong had four points on 2-of-6 shooting, with a game-high four steals.
For St. John’s, Joel Soriano had 14 points and 16 rebounds. Dylan Addae-Wusu had 12 points.
The Wildcats will have a long layoff and return to action on Sunday, Jan. 29, when they host Providence for a 12 p.m. ET matinee.