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January 11, 2014

0-3, Oh My!: Nova Holds Off Storming Johnnies

NEW YORK, NY -- St. John's was in a desperate need to bounce back from its two consecutive BIG EAST losses. However, the obstacle was no small task, as conference leader No. 8/10 Villanova was no light contender.

Though the Red Storm (9-6, 0-3), led by the 22 points of junior guard D'Angelo Harrison, won the first-half battle, the Wildcats (15-1, 4-0) won the war, holding off a feisty Johnnies team with some late-game plays that ultimately put the Storm away, 74-67, at Madison Square Garden on Saturday.

The Wildcats had five players in double-figures. Junior forward JayVaughn Pinkston led his squad with 15 points and 10 rebounds.

St. John's held a one-point lead as late as the 7:43 mark of the second half after a basket by freshman guard Rysheed Jordan inched the Johnnies ahead, 56-55.

After battling the Wildcats for 34 solid minutes, St. John's watched as Villanova proceeded to use an artful 10-1 surge at the end of the contest to gain an advantage of eight points, 65-57.

During the 'Nova stretch, the biggest plays were two, big-time 3-pointers from Wildcats' freshman forward Kris Jenkins and junior guard Darrun Hilliard (10 points).

St. John's, which displayed some anxiousness down the stretch, could not get down the needed buckets to stage a comeback in spite of securing several offensive possessions. In the final three minutes, after two free throws by Harrison, who suffered a contusion to the right-side of his nose in the first half, the Red Storm were only able to cut the deficit down to four points, 67-63, with 47 seconds left to play.

"There is an advantage when you have a veteran core group and program that's been rolling through the NCAA Tournament on an annual basis for over a decade," said St. John's Head Coach Steve Lavin of Villanova's poise down the stretch. "And that's the goal, and no one has been able to do it since Looie [legendary, St. John's hall-of-fame coach Lou Carnesecca]."

Villanova finished the game shooting 35.2 percent (19-of-54) from the field, including 31.3 percent (5-of-16) from 3-point range.

"Ultimately, at the end, they made enough plays, got enough buckets on the interior, got themselves to the foul line and had some timely 3-point daggers," said Lavin. "And that was just enough for them to get the win because, at our end, we came up empty on a couple of key possessions."

Despite countless questionable calls and no-calls, which gave Villanova lopsided opportunities at the free throw line (40-24), St. John's intense defense and emergence of other scoring options during crucial times of the game, allowed the unranked Storm to hang in there with the Wildcats.

Villanova's freshman guard Josh Hart, who benefitted the most from the opportunities at the charity stripe, finished with 13 points on 8-of-13 from the line.

"Foul trouble really hurt us today," said Lavin. "Right out of the gate, if you looked over, our whole starting lineup had two or more fouls."

Hampered by foul trouble, the Red Storm still looked more like the same team that took then-No. 2 Syracuse to the wire a month ago and less like the team that struggled against Xavier and Georgetown.

St. John's may have lost the rebounding battle, going -9 on the boards (48-39), but the Johnnies played a tough grind-it-out game. The squad fought for every possession it earned, securing 13 more attempts than the Wildcats (67-54).

St. John's had a strong stretch in the second half when the rookie Jordan seemingly took the reins of the squad with dribble penetration. He also found teammates in sweet spots, earning every minute of his 31 minutes of floor time.

Jordan finished with 12 points, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

"We need to do that more," said St. John's sophomore forward JaKarr Sampson, who finished with 10 points and nine boards. "I feel like he's coming out his shell, but we need him to do that the whole game, day in and day out."

Despite St. John's offensively dominating the paint, a problem that prevented the Johnnies from securing substantial leads was the team's inability to get down some of its many attempts in the paint. The Storm finished shooting at a 34.3 percent clip (23-of-67) from the field.

"We missed some point-blank lay-ups," said Lavin. "We missed some wide-open shots. Then, we had some heart-breakers, where they were halfway down [and] popped out... a couple of shots where it didn't bounce our way."

St. John's took the lead at the half after junior guard Jamal Branch drained a midrange jumper just before the buzzer. The Red Storm went to the locker room with a 33-31 advantage over Villanova.

The Red Storm were a formidable force in the first stanza, containing Villanova's outside shooters and inflicting a hefty presence on the Wildcats on the interior.

St. John's held Villanova to 25.9 percent (7-of-27) shooting in the first half.

The Johnnies led by as much as five points, 20-15, at the 9:28 mark of the first half, before the Wildcats went on a 7-0 run that put 'Nova ahead by two points, 22-20, by the 6:39 mark of the first half.

"Nothing is going to be given to you in this league," said Lavin. "You have to go out and earn every win."

St. John's will go back on the road to play DePaul on Tuesday, Jan. 14. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m.

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