PHILADELPHIA -- It turns out the only thing holding St. John’s back was a lack of top-five opponents.
After starting 0-11 in Big East play, the Red Storm won their second straight game against a top-five team on Wednesday, beating No. 1 Villanova 79-75.
St. John’s knocked off then-No. 4 Duke on Saturday 81-77 at Madison Square Garden.
Shamorie Ponds continued his hot streak, scoring 26 points after dropping 33 points against Duke and 31 earlier last week against Xavier. Justin Simon finished with 16 points, 10 rebounds and 7 assists, while Marvin Clark II had 15 points, including a key basket and foul with 1:20 to go after Villanova cut a nine-point lead to one.
Per ESPN Stats & Info, St. John’s is the first team in the AP poll era to beat a No. 1 team after entering the game with an 0-10 or worse record in conference play. It's also the first team in the AP poll era to win back-to-back games, both against top-five teams, immediately after a losing streak of 10 games. According to BPI, the Red Storm had a 0.3 percent chance to beat both Duke and Villanova.
So yes, this is a completely insane two-game stretch for St. John’s.
At the same time, this is what St. John’s has had the potential to do all season. The Red Storm entered November predicted to compete for an NCAA tournament bid and a top-half finish in the Big East. They then went 10-2 in nonconference play, with the lone losses coming against Missouri and Arizona State on neutral floors. The wheels fell off after that, as the Red Storm suffered 11 straight losses and second-leading scorer Marcus LoVett was lost for the season with an injury. Look a little deeper, though, and a couple of bounces the other way would have made that losing streak far less ugly. Eight of those 11 losses came by single digits, with five by five points or fewer.
Beating Duke and winning at Villanova was still entirely unexpected, of course, but St. John’s had shown flashes of this talent and ability over the past two months.
“Just perseverance,” head coach Chris Mullin said. “If you’ve seen our games, very, very similar to tonight. At the end, we made some plays we needed to make. All those games we lost were very, very similar. ... Just some things didn’t go our way [in those games].
“When it keeps happening 11 times in a row, it’s hard. But when you look at exactly what’s going on, we felt good about it, we stayed together and [gave] good things a chance to happen.”
In the long run, it’s unclear whether this is more than just a small bump in the road for Villanova on the way to another No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats have been able to withstand injuries all season, from Collin Gillespie to Jermaine Samuels to Phil Booth. But on Wednesday, they might have finally found someone they can’t play without: Eric Paschall.
The 6-foot-7 forward was out with a concussion, and his absence was evident at both ends of the floor. Paschall entered Wednesday as the leading 2-point shooter and 3-point shooter in the Big East and had hit double figures in nine of his past 11 games. More importantly, Paschall is one of the best and most versatile defensive players in the Big East, able to guard every position -- which would have been useful against St. John’s and its isolation-heavy offense.
“We missed him, but it can’t be an excuse because they’re missing their best player. You’ve gotta give them credit. And everybody in the country is dealing with that right now,” head coach Jay Wright said after the game. “You’ve gotta be a team enough that you miss a couple guys, you can find a way to scrap it out.”
The most noticeable number from Wednesday’s game was Villanova shooting just 8-for-33 from 3-point range, including a 2-for-18 effort in the second half. The Wildcats are one of the best shooting teams in the country and usually get around 40 percent of their points from 3-pointers.
But while the offense wasn’t clicking, it's the defense that is becoming more of a concern.
Wednesday was the fourth straight game in which Villanova has allowed its opponent to score 1.10 points per possession or better, a number that would rank around 300th nationally in raw defensive efficiency if stretched over a full season. The Wildcats have two high-level individual defenders in Paschall and Mikal Bridges, but they’ve had trouble on the glass and containing dribble penetration.
“We’ve had difficulty defending all year, and [St. John’s is] as good as it gets in terms of isolating one-on-one,” Wright said. “We weren’t able to guard them.”
Paschall is expected to miss at least a week, while Booth remains out indefinitely with a fractured bone in his right hand. Villanova will need both players healthy for a deep run in March, as the Wildcats are left with seven rotation players without those two.
Meanwhile, St. John’s likely dug itself too deep of a hole with its 11-game losing streak to be a factor in the bigger tournament in March, but the Red Storm are suddenly a team to watch in the Big East tournament, especially because it is at Madison Square Garden. Spoiler, anyone?
“We can’t go backwards,” Ponds said. “We gotta keep going up and up.”