In the Arena: Wildcats Quell Red Storm in Regular Season Finale

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Villanova celebrated its Big East regular season title Saturday.

Villanova 105, St. John’s 68 – Box Score

Villanova’s 1995 Big East Champion team was honored at the Wildcats’ regular season finale Saturday afternoon. It made for a nice photo opp after the game, both teams coming together with the Big East trophy and uniting two eras of Villanova basketball. However, after a dominating second half carried this current Wildcats group to victory over St. John’s, it’s safe to say Nova Nation has its sights set beyond the Big East.

Now at 29-2, Villanova would seem to have locked up a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Things weren’t so certain early on against the Red Storm though, as St. John’s hit their first 5 shots from the field to take an early 11-point lead. After the game, Jay Wright discussed St. John’s initial hot shooting,

“That first half was really good basketball. We weren’t bad defensively; they were hitting tough shots. That’s what they do.”

Thanks to some marksmanship of their own from Josh Hart (3 first-half threes) and Darrun Hilliard (all 14 of his points coming in the first half), the Wildcats went on a 11-0 run to regain the lead, eventually leading 50-46 at halftime, their highest scoring first half of the season.

Still, thanks in large part to 21 points from Rysheed Jordan, the Red Storm kept hanging around; the score was still 62-58 with 13 minutes left in the game. That’s when things escalated at the speed of Brick Tamland with a trident.

St. John’s was already shorthanded, playing without injured center Chris Obekpa, the nation’s 5th-leading shot blocker, and reserve guard Jamal Branch. Around this time, foul trouble began to creep up on the Johnnies; absent reinforcements on the bench, they had no choice but to adopt matador defensive strategies. Coach Wright credited his team’s second-half success to that situation:

“They just couldn’t foul. They had to get kind of let us score…so it was easy for us to be aggressive with our depth and just attacking the rim and going inside.”

Villanova went on a 20-4 run to blow the game open. Later, after Red Storm coach Steve Lavin threw a host of walk-ons out there to avoid further injury to his players, the Wildcats recorded another 17-0 surge with St. John’s going nearly 8 minutes without scoring. The Villanova frontline took advantage of Obekpa’s absence and St. John’s passive defense, dropping buckets with ease on the interior. Daniel Ochefu finished with 21 points on 8-9 shooting, 9 rebounds, and 5 blocks, while JayVaughn Pinkston added 18 points on 7-9 shooting.

After all was said and done, Villanova’s 105 points represented not only their best offensive performance of the season, but arguably the best outing in college basketball this year.

With the regular season now successfully concluded, the Wildcats set their sight on the Big East tournament, facing the winner of Marquette and Seton Hall Thursday afternoon. Playing some of their best ball at the perfect time of year, Jay Wright’s squad can look back on successes in the program’s past, knowing they’re fully capable of ushering in an ever brighter future.

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