NEW YORK (AP) — Give it to the big guy. He’s the only one making shots.
Mouphtaou Yarou connected on his first seven attempts from the field and scored 18 points, sending Villanova to a 66-53 victory over St. John’s in the second round of the Big East tournament Wednesday night.
“One of the things I’m most proud about him is, he’s a guy that came from Africa, and he’s a Philadelphia basketball player,” Wildcats coach Jay Wright said. “He’s a Villanova basketball player. He knows the game. He is smart. He’s a leader. He’s playing for his teammates.”
Ryan Arcidiacono added 15 points to help the seventh-seeded Wildcats (20-12) move into the quarterfinals, where they will play Thursday night against fourth-ranked Louisville, the tournament’s No. 2 seed.
Villanova beat Louisville 73-64 at home on Jan. 22 to end a three-game skid and turn its season around.
“I think they’re playing a lot better right now. I think they’re really hot,” Wright said. “And this team has been in this position before. I expect a great game from them.”
JayVaughn Pinkston had 12 points and nine rebounds for Villanova, which shook off St. John’s midway through the second half. Yarou, a senior center winding down his Wildcats career, finished 9 for 10 from the field with seven rebounds and three steals. He came in averaging 9.4 points per game on 45 percent shooting.
“I knew if I started making shots, they would step up,” said Yarou, who finished two points shy of his season high. “I was hoping for my teammates. I wasn’t worried about St. John’s.”
Phil Greene scored 16 on 7-of-19 shooting for the 10th-seeded Red Storm (16-15). JaKarr Sampson, the conference Rookie of the Year, had 13 points on 5-for-18 shooting and nine rebounds.
“I felt like I had a lot of heat on me,” Sampson said.
Villanova has an RPI ranking of 53 but appears to be in good shape for an NCAA tournament berth thanks to three wins over top 5 teams this season, plus a victory over Marquette, which shared the Big East championship.
The Wildcats made seven straight NCAA tournament appearances before last season’s 13-win team missed out. But Wright’s balanced squad has rebounded pretty quickly.
“I still feel real good,” the coach said. “I knew there was a chance we could lose this one, and it would be a long week at home waiting. Right now I’m not going to think about that. I’m just going to think about Louisville.”
St. John’s, which was playing on one of its home courts, will hope for a bid from the NIT. The Red Storm, who went 2 for 11 from 3-point range, have dropped five in a row and seven of eight.
“From Feb. 3 forward, it’s been really tough,” said coach Steve Lavin, whose father died Feb. 10. “That’s probably why I feel as close to this team as any in my coaching career and why I’m so grateful to work with them and looking forward to brighter days ahead.”
The Wildcats hadn’t played in a week since beating No. 5 Georgetown 67-57 in their regular-season finale. But they went 19 of 23 at the foul line (83 percent) to 9 of 14 for St. John’s (64 percent), the worst free throw-shooting team in the league.
Villanova was trailing by two when Yarou scored inside with 16:27 left. Arcidiacono hit a 3-pointer to snap a 33-all tie, then connected on another jumper and the Wildcats never looked back.
“We count on him for that, and he knows that,” Wright said. “I think there was a point in the game where he was looking, and we needed a big shot. We needed someone to make a play.”
Villanova overcame eight turnovers from Arcidiacono, its freshman point guard, and 18 percent shooting from outside the arc (3 for 17). Other than Yarou, the Wildcats combined to shoot 30 percent from the field (13 for 44).
“We know what a good shooter he is,” Wright said. “They really took our guards away from us tonight, and they kind of made a decision — we’re going to make him beat us, which is not a bad game plan. He was big-time.”
Sophomore swingman Sir’Dominic Pointer returned to the lineup for St. John’s following a one-game suspension for being involved in a fight during a 66-40 defeat at Notre Dame on March 5. The Red Storm were still missing top scorer D’Angelo Harrison, though. Third in the Big East at 17.8 points per game, the sophomore guard was suspended March 1 for the rest of the season for conduct detrimental to the team. He has missed the last four games, all losses.
“They’re not as explosive without him on the floor. That’s a big loss,” Wright said.
Sampson drew a technical foul for hanging on the rim when he went up for an offensive rebound with 8:19 to go. Darrun Hilliard hit both foul shots and Villanova was awarded the ball on alternate possession. Daniel Ochefu scored inside to put the Wildcats up 50-40.
Five straight points by Greene, on a 3-pointer and fast-break layup following a steal, cut the St. John’s deficit to five. But the Wildcats scored the next seven, beginning with James Bell’s layup off a feed from Arcidiacono, to go ahead 57-45 with less than three minutes remaining.
Villanova raced out to an 18-6 lead behind Yarou, who hit all six of his shots in the first half.
“That’s really Mouph’s value to us: You have to guard him on the perimeter. So he hit a lot of jumpers,” Wright said.
The Red Storm responded with Greene and Sampson and closed the half on an 18-6 spurt of their own to send the teams into the locker room tied at 24.
St. John’s, a three-time champion at this event, and Villanova are two of the seven basketball-centric Catholic schools breaking away from the conference to create their own league, which will begin play next season and keep the Big East name.
This was their seventh meeting in the Big East tournament and first since 2000.
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