Usually, the bright lights and big stage of Madison Square Garden are enough inspire star players to shine even brighter.
In front of a packed Garden crowd of at least 18,000 spectators, No. 3 Villanova overcame a slow start en route to a 70-57 win over a young, feisty St. John’s squad.
However, in a game in which the Wildcats struggled to find their footing early, it wasn’t the usual suspects that carried them over the turbulence and toward victory. Instead, the Wildcats rallied behind the play of their reserves.
This year’s Villanova team is operating on a short rotation, despite this, it got everything the Wildcats needed and more from its reserves in the Saturday matinee game against the Red Storm.
Donte DiVincenzo and Eric Paschall combined for 28 points off an efficient tag-team effort of an 11-of-16 shooting performance.
DiVincenzo was the source of major production, as he had the best game of his young Villanova career.
Not only did he lead the team in scoring on Saturday, the redshirt freshman finished with a career-high 19 points, grabbed three rebounds, and dished out a pair of assists in a 31-minute stretch.
The brilliant performance comes right after a strong showing against No. 15 Xavier. However, ask Jay Wright or any of DiVincenzo’s teammates, and they’ll tell you it’s no surprise. The Delaware native had shown flashes of being a valuable contributor in practice, and it was only a matter of time before it translated over to when the cameras were rolling and thousands of eyes watching him.
“You gotta do it in games,” said Wright of DiVincenzo. “Do it here in the Garden against a tough, aggressive team and then against Xavier–that’s big time.”
Villanova’s trio of Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins, and Jalen Brunson had led the Wildcats in scoring heading into Saturday’s game. While they accounted for 29 points collectively, their 9-of-29 combined shooting performance left much to be desired.
“We have to set a tone,” Hart said. “We have to be an example for these guys, and that’s something we can’t do.”
Villanova struggled to get itself going. Wright called a quick time out after St. John’s blitzed them to a quick 6-0 start in the first two minutes of the game.
The Wildcats struggled to find any momentum on offense, and the Red Storm was able to get their shots to fall–even the difficult ones.
On the other end of the court, they locked down the perimeter, where the Wildcats usually succeed. This time around, they shot a subpar 7-of-21 (33.3 percent) for the whole game. It didn’t help that 12 of their uncharacteristic 20 turnovers came in the first half alone.
“I think that was an example of a young, hungry team playing against a veteran team,” Wright said. “Disappointed with our effort, but impressed with St. John’s effort and tenacity. 20 turnovers–that’s a testament to St. John’s effort and toughness.”
St. John’s got itself going early behind star freshman Shamorie Ponds and veteran Bashir Ahmed. However, the Red Storm’s good fortune eventually ran out.
Trailing 24-19 with 6:32 left in the opening half, Villanova would respond with a 9-0 run to take the lead. The scoring spurt was launched by a Mikal Bridges three, and topped off by a Paschall and-one and another three from DiVincenzo.
Once DiVincenzo’s long range basket fell with less than five minutes to go in the half, the Wildcats were not relinquishing the lead.
“He’s getting points, he’s playing the 2-guard, he’s playing the ‘3,’” Wright said. “I think he can be a Josh Hart, I really do. I talked to him about that before. What impressed us so much about Josh is that he’s complete. There’s nothing on the basketball court that he can’t do, I think Donte can do that too.”
They took a narrow 35-29 lead into halftime and simply continued to build on it in the second half.
A Malik Ellison and-one would trim Villanova’s lead down to just two in the opening minutes of the half, but that would be the closest the Red Storm would get to posing a threat to Villanova.
The Wildcats would respond with a 10-2 run that was capped off by a Paschall dunk to push the Wildcat lead into double figures. From there, it was all but over for St. John’s, as the Villanova lead would not dip into single digits.
It also helped Villanova to have a clear 41-23 advantage on the glass. 13 of those 41 rebounds came on offense and helped translate into 14 second chance points. It was a source of great frustration for the much bigger Red Storm.
“In the first half we played them good,” Ponds said. “In the second half, they attacked us, and we backed down. They punched us and we couldn’t recover from the punch that they gave us.”
Ponds paced the Johnnies with a team-high 13 points. Fellow classmate Marcus LoVett had 12 points. Ahmed (11 points) and Ellison (10 points) would also surpass the double digit scoring mark.
With the win, Villanova improves to 17-1 overall and 4-1 in Big East play. Despite this, Wright is still looking and expecting more from his team.
“I was frustrated with our team,” Wright said. “We’re trying to get to a certain level of play. We played similar here as we did in the Butler game. We’re not a finished product yet.”
The Wildcats will be faced with a short turnaround, as they will now take on the Seton Hall Pirates in a rematch of last year’s Big East Tournament final. It is one of the handful of matchups to be featured as part of the Big East marathon this Monday. Tip-off is at 6:30 p.m.
“Very similar team to St. John’s,” said Wright of the Pirates. “Very physical and aggressive, but more experienced. They always give us trouble for the same reasons St. John’s gives us trouble. They’re ugly, tough, and hopefully, no 20 turnovers.”