A Tale Of Two Halves: St. John’s Blows A 17-Point Lead Versus No. 2 Villanova

Villanova didn’t lead until late in the second half, but held on down the stretch.

Forward Joel Soriano talks to head coach Mike Anderson in the Big East Quarterfinals.

TORCH PHOTO/ Sara Kienan

Forward Joel Soriano talks to head coach Mike Anderson in the Big East Quarterfinals.

NEW YORK, NY — The St. John’s Men’s Basketball program hasn’t advanced to the Big East Tournament Semifinals in 22 years, and for the better part of their tournament run, it looked like the drought was destined to end. The Red Storm blew out DePaul in the opening round Wednesday night — the largest margin of victory in a conference tournament game since 2010. Against No. 2 Villanova, the No. 7 St. John’s team was in control for 30 minutes, but let their lead slip to suffer a heartbreaking loss, 66-65, in the Big East Quarterfinals on Thursday, March 10. 

In their first game Wednesday night, the team came onto the floor looking sluggish for the better part of five minutes. Head coach Mike Anderson called it ‘nerves’ in a post game media conference; junior Julian Champagnie called it a ‘lapse.’ Whatever it was, it was nowhere to be found when the Johnnies tipped off against the Wildcats. 

From the opening tip onward, St. John’s established a strong paint presence and maintained it throughout the half. Though the easy layups, dunks and floaters came, the team was dominant anywhere inside the arc. Star forward Champagnie scored the game’s first points with a mid-range jumper and set the tone for the offense. 

The one area where the Red Storm offense stagnated was from three-point range, as none of the team’s shooters were able to find their stroke. In their first nine chances — some wide-open looks due to creative passing lanes — St. John’s only knocked a single three-pointer down. Those long-range woes would continue throughout the night, with the team finishing with four made three-pointers in 19 attempts. 

Their woes beyond the arch didn’t matter at first, because Villanova delivered one of their worst shooting performances all season in the first half. The Wildcats missed their first five chances from deep, and continued to take any deep shot they could despite the low efficiency: the team took nine more three-pointers than two-pointers in the opening period. As the teams exited the court, the Johnnies held a seven-point lead, but an unfortunate foul call loomed large. 

You saw a team that probably could and should have been [in the] NCAA [Tournament.]”

— Mike Anderson

Just before the half, Posh Alexander stood his ground roughly a foot outside of the restricted area. Two Villanova players collided with Alexander, and the resulting call was a blocking foul — not a charge. “It was a charge. I mean, it was a charge,” Anderson reiterated in a post game media conference. “That’s what it was. And so that’s what I’ll say on that.”

The supposed missed call represented Alexander’s third personal foul, and the point guard was immediately removed from the court. Anderson had to use his best playmaker sparingly, fearing that Alexander would reach the maximum early in the second half. “I thought it had an effect,” Anderson said of the foul trouble. “I thought we had some guys that came in that gave us some significant minutes.” Even still, the coach acknowledged that Alexander’s third foul altered the amount of minutes — and the intensity — the sophomore guard could play. 

Despite the team’s foul trouble, St. John’s returned to the floor with force, extending their lead to as many as 17 points. Champagnie scored five points in the first two minutes of the second half, while Villanova continued their scoring troubles. But the depth of the Wildcats, led by their fifth-year point guard Colin Gillespie, evidenced they are impossible to keep down for that long — Villanova trailed for more than 33 total minutes — and they peaked at the right time. 

A late-game stretch that saw Villanova knock down 9-of-11 field goal tries propelled the Wildcats ahead of the Johnnies, and with a restrained Alexander, it took minutes for St. John’s to retake the lead. “They have been there; they’ve done that,” Anderson said of Villanova’s track record. “I guess their experience kicked in gear at the end.”

The final blow to St. John’s season — in the most fitting medium — was two made free-throws by Villanova with 2.8 seconds left in regulation. The team fought to retake the lead in the final minute of play, 65-64, and although they provided a valiant stand under the basket, Champagnie committed the foul. “The thing I was more disappointed tonight more so, the free-throw line discrepancy,” said Anderson. “That took place here and it took place at their place.” Villanova made 17-2o tries from the charity stripe, but St. John’s made 7 of their 11 attempts. 

Julian Champagnie had a team-high 23 points against No. 2 Villanova.  (TORCH PHOTO/ Sara Kiernan)

And that’s how the St. John’s season ends — outstanding individual performances from Champagnie, who scored 23 points, and Alexander weren’t enough to keep the team’s postseason hopes alive. The program had high expectations all season, as the fans, media and coaches waited for the Johnnies to figure out their lingering issues. In the end, it never happened. 

“If you watched the team, they just kind of rolled over the whole season,” Anderson said.  “You saw a team that probably could and should have been [in the] NCAA [Tournament.]”