VILLANOVA, Pa. (AP) — Phil Booth hit a go-ahead 3-pointer late in the game and scored 23 points to help Villanova rally to beat No. 24 St. John’s 76-71 on Tuesday night.
Eric Paschall scored 25 points for the defending national champion Wildcats (12-4, 3-0 Big East), who shook off four losses in nonconference play and are rounding into form as the team to beat in the conference.
The upstart Red Storm seemed poised to snag that title with their best start since 1985-86 and a possible upset win (they were six-point underdogs) in their grasp. St. John’s led by 13 in the first half and by 11 early in the second before a 3-point-happy offense went cold and rushed shot selection gave the Wildcats time needed to storm back and win.
Booth, a two-time national champion guard, has saved his best for the second half this season and delivered again in the clutch. He hit the bucket that pulled the Wildcats within one and connected on a 3 with 2:33 to go for a 68-67 lead they would not relinquish.
Shamorie Ponds had 23 points for St. John’s (14-2, 2-2), the last on two free throws with 59 seconds left that got the Red Storm within 72-69. The Wildcats, who dropped two home games early to fall out of the Top 25, sealed their fourth straight victory at the free-throw line.
Booth hit six of Villanova’s 12 3-pointers.
The Wildcats trailed by 11 when they erupted on a 12-0 run to take their first lead of the game. The Wildcats got contributions from young — freshman Saddiq Bey hit a 3 and a layup that started the spurt — and old — Booth buried a 3 and scored on a driving layup for a 51-50 lead.
Perhaps the Red Storm of coach Chris Mullin’s first three seasons would have wilted on the road much earlier after squandering a double-digit lead. Led by Ponds, this year’s team has the confidence and talent to shake off the slumps and attack. Ponds converted a four-point play to push the lead to eight and LJ Figueroa sank a 3 that kept SJU’s lead at four.
It wouldn’t last.
The Red Storm came in rolling after a soft nonconference schedule that sparked them to their best start since the 1980s. St. Johns’ used wins over then-No. 16 Marquette and Georgetown to hit the AP Top 25 this week for the first time in more than four years.
Mullin’s fourth season has been his best and has the program thinking big: SJU athletic director Mike Cragg said this week he wants all Big East home games played at Madison Square Garden.
The Red Storm felt at home at the refurbished Pavilion and got the better of the Wildcats early in a 3-point shootout. Ponds hit one to help St. John’s race out to a 20-7 lead. Ponds hit another 3 that stunted a Villanova run and St. John’s made nine in the half for a 39-34 lead. With each team firing 3s (a combined 38 attempts in the half), there only five total free throws before the break.
St. John’s had some small success last season, including a win over then-No. 1 Nova in Philadelphia. It was the Red Storm’s second win over a top-five team in a week and first over a top-ranked team in 33 years. The Red Storm have to avoid any big upsets to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015.
Villanova had several members of its 1985 national championship team sit behind the bench. Mullin played for St. John’s in ’85 when it reached the Final Four and lost to its Big East rival. The Wildcats are still a national power and are meshing together after some early bumps.
St. John’s hosts DePaul on Saturday.
Villanova plays Sunday at Creighton.
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