St. John’s Late Game Heroics Fall Short Against No. 15 Villanova, 75-69

The Red Storm offense looked lost without its starting point guard.

NEW YORK, NY — In the team’s last attempt for a win streak that would spark an at-large NCAA tournament bid, St. John’s couldn’t overcome the loss of its starting point guard against a tough conference opponent. Despite nearly erasing a 20-point deficit, the Johnnies eventually succumbed to the Villanova Wildcats, 75-69. 

Prior to the Tuesday night matchup at Madison Square Garden, the game was expected to be a new look on offense for both teams. For Villanova, two of the team’s top players — guards Collin Gillespie and Justin Moore — were listed as questionable leading up to tip off. In reality, both players were doubtful. Moore hadn’t practiced since suffering the injury, and Villanova head coach Jay Wright was told by the training staff that Gillespie couldn’t play. The players “gutted it out” and started the game after successfully completing warm-ups, Wright said. 

But for the Johnnies, the loss in the team’s backcourt — starting point guard Posh Alexander was in a boot and unavailable — would be more impactful. Alexander’s impact on both sides of the ball elevates not only his own play, but the team’s. “He’s like a one-man press,” Wright said when asked about the blow of losing Alexander. Wright and the Villanova team now had to tackle a St. John’s team without the critical “ferocious screener” and “great offensive rebounder” that cultivates the team’s gameplan. 

Dylan Addae-Wusu replaced Alexander for the opening tip, and initially, the St. John’s offense flowed efficiently. Against a tough Villanova defense that’s only gotten stronger, the Johnnies were getting open looks. As has been a concern all season, the shots weren’t falling often, but there was reason for promise. The team took a point guard by committee approach to Alexander’s absence, with Addae-Wusu, Montez Mathis and Stef Smith all on the ball. 

St. John’s paced Villanova nearly step-for-step in the opening minutes of the first half as the game got increasingly physical. The Red Storm defense did a tremendous job stifling the Wildcats’ perimeter shooting — Villanova finished with a putrid 23.8 three-point shooting percentage on the night — but they were met with a forceful paint presence. Led by Eric Dixon, the Wildcats’ nearly doubled the Johnnies’ total points in the paint. 

The crux of the shift in the game’s style of play was when three St. John’s players were vigorously fouled under the basket in the first half. Julian Champagnie was thrown to the ground while attempting a layup by Justin Moore and was visibly shaken after the ordeal. The star forward, who had recently broken out of his four-game slump, added a hip injury to his other finger and eye injuries. 

Minutes later, O’Mar Stanley was fouled in similar fashion, causing tension between the two teams, who had to be separated. Those two fouls were officially reviewed, but both were deemed common fouls. For St. John’s fans that remember the flagrant foul that marred the team’s first opportunity for a signature win against Indiana, the no-calls seemed puzzling. Officiating all night seemed confusing at best, from no-calls to ‘flop’ warnings to ‘delay of game’ warnings. 

Amidst the chaos of pauses in play and medical departures for Champagnie, St. John’s remained as close to Villanova as two points, although the team’s scoring woes continued. The team proceeded to halftime with a six-point deficit. When they returned, the Johnnies’ were a step behind the Wildcats for the better part of the second half. 

Outside of graduate forward Aaron Wheeler, who has been a revelation for St. John’s in recent weeks, the team struggled to create shots. Without Alexander, who dictates offensive ball movement with his ability to drive to the basket and create ball screens, key players were lost. Wheeler and Champagnie shot a combined 15-for-32 from the field, while the rest of the team made just 9-of-43 tries. 

Late in the second half, St. John’s prospects looked bleak, as the team was down by as many as 20 with under five minutes to play. But, led by Wheeler and Smith, the team didn’t back down. “Those guys were playing to win,” head coach Mike Anderson said in a postgame media conference. “That’s the fire I’m looking for.” 

While the team struggled, Wheeler stood out as the person to trust down the stretch — scoring a career-high 31 points, shooting 60 percent from beyond the arc. Wheeler shared in a post-game conference that he is “trying to contribute on both ends of the floor. My teammates did a good job of finding me.”

Late-game pressure put the game in Wheeler’s hands, who scored eight points in just over a minute to make it a one-possession affair. “When you start getting deflections and scoring it lets you set your defense a little more,” Anderson said. “It triggered our offense.” 

With the game on the line, the ball was in Tareq Coburn’s hands for a corner three-point attempt to tie the game. The shot rimmed off, all but quenching hopes of a comeback. “I thought our guys did a good job of getting ball movement and got it to a guy that is capable of knocking a shot down,” Anderson said. “I have no problem with that particular shot.” Though Coburn didn’t make a single shot against Villanova, the guard’s scoring prowess has been proven. Unfortunately for the Johnnies, the effort was too little, too late. 

St. John’s returns to Madison Square Garden on Sunday, Feb. 13 to face off against UConn. According to Anderson, there is no update on Champagnie’s status for that contest and Alexander is considered day-to-day with an ankle sprain.