St. John's knew it would have its hands full coming into the matchup with No. 9/11 Villanova on the road Saturday at the Wells Fargo Center (Philadelphia, Pa.).
Every player understood they would need to step up in the absence of senior forward Orlando Sanchez, who is spending time with his wife and newborn child, and possibly sophomore center Chris Obekpa, who originally was to miss 10 to 14 days after suffering an ankle injury but was recently said to be a game-time decision due to an advancement in recovery.
The matchup with the Wildcats (24-3, 12-2 BIG EAST) proved to be an extremely physical, gritty, up-tempo and, at times, messy battle.
Despite the Red Storm (18-10, 8-7) threatening with lead changes and never allowing Villanova to go on much of a run, poor decision-making, missed shots and sloppy footwork allowed the Wildcats to avoid an upset and squeak out a 57-54 victory.
Nova held a six-point advantage, 44-38, on a 3-pointer by senior guard James Bell (nine points, seven rebounds) as late as the 11:15 mark of the second half. Yet the Johnnies' sophomore forward JaKarr Sampson netted a bucket, followed up by a 3-pointer from teammate, junior guard D'Angelo Harrison, sparked a mini-surge to tie the game at 47 on a transition lay-in from junior swingman Sir'Dominic Pointer by the 7:59 mark.
While the squads would trade baskets and tie again at 50, a clutch trey banked in by sophomore guard Ryan Arcidiacono (12 points) and a free throw from junior guard Darrun Hilliard catapulted the Wildcats ahead by a weighty four points, 54-50, with 1:52 left on the clock.
St. John's climbed within an ace of the competition, 54-53, on a jumper by Harrison nearly a minute later, but the Johnnies would not entirely close the gap.
After sophomore big man Daniel Ochefu (11 rebounds) netted the back end of his free throw opportunities, the Wildcats held a two-point advantage, 55-53, allowing the Johnnies a golden opportunity to knot the game. However, a set play by the Red Storm went awry when junior guard Phil Greene turned the ball over following a traveling call, giving Nova 14.1 seconds on its possession.
St. John's Greene was forced to foul Arcidiacono, who sank 1-of-2 from the charity stripe. Harrison attempted a desperation trey, missed the mark, but was able to draw the foul with 1.5 ticks remaining. He sank the first one and was going to intentionally miss the second for a field goal opportunity, but the Red Storm was called for a lane violation.
The Johnnies were led by Harrison's 15 points, while Jordan recorded 13 points. Teammate Sampson posted a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds. Greene added nine points.
St. John's shot 32.2 percent (19-or-59) from the field, sinking only 27.3 percent (3-of-11) from 3-point range. Villanova netted 39.2 percent (20-of-51) overall, including a backbreaking 40.9 percent (9-of-22) from downtown.
Nova outrebounded the Johnnies by eight (41-33), but the Storm forced the Wildcats to play a somewhat unorganized game as the squad committed 15 turnovers. St. John's committed only nine of their own.
The Johnnies last held an advantage at the 19:20 mark of the second stanza when the score was 30-28.
The Red Storm trailed the competition, 28-27, at the break.
The Wildcats, who were led by the long range proficiency of Hilliard, led by as much as eight points, 8-0, by the 17:32 mark of the first half.
Hilliard, who finished with a game-high 18 points, recorded 11 points on 4-of-6 from the field, including a whopping 3-of-4 from beyond the arc, in the first stanza.
St. John's will return home to play Xavier on Tuesday, Feb. 25, at Madison Square Garden (New York, N.Y.). Tip-off is slated for 7 p.m.