Having not played since their loss last Sunday against Providence, it was reasonable to fear that Villanova could be a bit rusty. This problem was compounded when it was announced shortly before game time that star center Daniel Ochefu had suffered a concussion during practice, ruling him out of the game.
The absence of the 6-11 senior center left a void in the middle and a new challenge for Jay Wright to figure out. It wasn’t pretty, but Villanova was able to pull off the win, beating St. John’s 68-53.
St. John’s was able to take advantage of missed open shots and a plague of turnovers to jump out to an early lead. Luckily for the Wildcats, they were able to hang in the game due to the ability to get to the line. In the first six minutes Villanova got to the charity stripe six times and converted on five attempts.
Jalen Brunson was the first Villanovan to shake off the rust as he was able to drive to the hole and make the layup for the Wildcats’ first field goal of the game at the 13:25 mark.
However, the rest of the team did not respond to Brunson’s efforts. Turnovers and blown layups were a theme for the Wildcats in the first half and it became more and more apparent that Ochefu’s presence was being missed underneath.
Both teams failed to generate much of anything and the half was fueled by turnovers. Eleven turnovers were committed by Villanova and St. John’s tallied a staggering ten of their own, causing a disjointed and uninteresting game.
The game went into halftime with ‘Nova up by one after a Ron Mvouika prayer was answered from deep to give the Johnnies some momentum.
Maybe it was what Jay Wright said in the locker room or it was ‘Nova finally gaining their game legs, but the Wildcats looked like a different team in the second half.
The half was opened by Kris Jenkins draining a trey and gave him the necessary confidence that helped carried the ‘Cats throughout the half.
Also getting hot at the time was Josh Hart, who scored six points within the first six minutes of the second half. Combined with Jenkins’ effort, these two Villanovan stars would not let St. John’s stiff an upset.
Due to Ochefu’s absence, rebounding could have been a problem for the Wildcats especially in crunch time. However it was Jenkins, Hart, and Darryl Reynolds who contributed to the rebounding cause.
“I was happy the second half we kind of got it going,” Wildcats’ coach Jay Wright said. ”I thought the big key was Kris [Jenkins] and Darryl Reynolds on the boards. That was big. Josh [Hart] did a good job too. Without Daniel [Ochefu] that was big for us.”
Jenkins was also well aware of the career high number in the rebounding column on his stat sheet.
“Going into every game I try to focus on rebounding. It’s just today I was able to get to a lot more because Daniel usually grabs most of the rebounds,” Jenkins said, laughing.
After Villanova extended its lead to double digits with 13:46 remaining, the rest seemed to be a formality. More poor shooting and sloppiness with the ball was eventually St. John’s undoing. Eleven more second half turnovers and a sub 35% shooting percentage from the field were the lowlights for the Red Storm.
”They don’t make mistakes, so we had empty possessions for 8 minutes where we were giving balls away,” St. John’s Ron Mvouika said. ”Against a team like that, they’re going to make us pay. That’s what they did, they made us pay.”
Despite the loss for the Johnnies, Coach Chris Mullin tried to focus on the positives, but acknowledged Villanova’s significant advantage on the boards.
”I thought our defensive effort was really, really good, especially in the first half,” Mullin said. “We did a really good job there, made it tough for them. Between the rebounds, turnovers and free throws, that’s pretty much the game right there.”
For the game, Villanova shot 36.2% from the field, and 31.8% from beyond the arc. Hart (16 points, 11 rebounds) and Jenkins (14 points, 11 rebounds) both contributed double-doubles and to the winning cause. Mikal Bridges was the only other Wildcat to score in double digits, scoring a modest 13 points.
On the flip side, St. John’s leading scorer was Durand Johnson who put up 13 points of his own. The Johnnies also had a double-double of their own with Mvouika contributing 11 points and 10 rebounds. As a team, the Red Storm shot a measly 32.8% from the field. However, they fared better from deep as they held a 36.4% conversion rate.
The loss for St. John’s means their longest losing streak in program history was extended to twelve games. The Red Storm still have yet to win a Big East game in nine tries and have a 7-15 record on the year.
With the win, the Wildcats improve to 8-1 in Big East competition and 18-3 overall. They also have extended their winning streak against St. John’s, a streak that extends all the way back to 2011.
Villanova will be back in action Wednesday against Creighton. Tip-off is at 8 p.m.