St. John’s Men’s basketball (14-14, 3-12 Big East) have struggled in conference play, and it isn’t getting any easier. They started a stretch of three straight top-20 opponents, losing to #13 Seton Hall University on Sunday Feb. 23 and #12 Villanova University on Wednesday Feb. 26.
While hopes of landing an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament have long since subsided, this late-season stretch could have started some much-needed momentum toward a conference tournament run. Instead, the Johnnies have fallen back to the .500 mark for the first time all season.
Things started inauspiciously on Sunday at the Prudential Center, where the Red Storm haven’t won since 2014. They missed 17 of their first 20 attempts from the field and fell behind by 14 points with still 11 minutes left in the first half.
As has been the case all season, St. John’s did not fold. They cut the lead down to seven with a run early in the second half, accentuated by a skidding L.J. Figueroa layup that he converted into an and-one. They hung around that number for a few minutes but, if it was close at all, that was as close as the Red Storm would come.
“They would make a big play,” head coach Mike Anderson said after the loss. “That’s what good teams do.”
National Player of the Year candidate Myles Powell turned around an abysmal start, scoring 13 points in the final 14 minutes for a team-high 18, and the Pirates built their lead up to 23. Reflective of the way things have gone this season, St. John’s mounted a 12-0 run in the final three minutes to keep the deficit to a more respectable 16.
“Can’t knock the effort of our guys,” Anderson said. “Just went against a better team today.”
When Villanova stormed out to a 14-4 lead in the first five minutes on Wednesday, it felt like the start of the same story. For most of the first half it was, with St. John’s battling back to keep the scores within single digits and the Wildcats opening it back up with a 7-0 run at the end of the period.
Then, finally, the scrappy Johnnies came again to play with that reckless abandon. They swiped three steals and scored six fastbreak points as part of a 12-1 run to close the half, cutting the deficit to two. Rasheem Dunn scored two of his team-leading 12 on a contested layup as the clock ticked inside of five seconds.
“We talked about just kind of hanging around,” Anderson said.
Temporarily, the Red Storm pulled even with their first shot of the second half. They wouldn’t score again for nearly four minutes, turning the ball over twice and missing four times while the Wildcats knocked down a pair of threes to open the lead back up to 10.
Dunn scored five points in 40 seconds to narrow it back down to 53-51 with eight minutes left, but the Johnnies were quiet on the offensive end even as they stymied the Villanova three-point barrage that plagued them in the first half. While the Wildcats went 4-17 from beyond the arc in the final 20 minutes, St. John’s made just 9 of their last 29 shots.
“I’ve said it all year long, if shooting catches up with our defense, somebody’s going to be in trouble, and we saw it tonight,” Anderson said after the loss. “We made some shots to keep us in it, but I thought our defense was really the catapult to try and take Villanova out of what they do.”
Villanova let the Red Storm hang in for as long as they could, before finally ripping off the decisive 15-5 run en route to a 71-60 win.
St. John’s will have to battle to keep the sprint to the finish from turning into a slog. They finally pulled out a win on March 1 against #10 Creighton, but the celebration wouldn’t last long — The Red Storm lost by 20 against Butler, and edged out a 2-point win over Marquette on Saturday March 7. On Wednesday, they’ll go head-to-head with Georgetown for the Big East Tournament.