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St. John’s Battles Back to Top No. 13/13 Villanova at Madison Square Garden

Trailing the defending national champions by as many as 19 in the first half, the St. John’s men’s basketball team completed one of the most thrilling comebacks in the history of the program, knocking off No. 13/13 Villanova, 71-65, in front of a sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden.

The win, the Red Storm’s third ranked victory of the season, marked the first for St. John’s against the Wildcats at home since Jan. 20, 2002. The Johnnies (19-7, 7-6 BIG EAST) now own five Quad One wins on the season and hold a 3-1 record against the BIG EAST’s nationally ranked duo of Marquette and Villanova. St. John’s is now 5-1 in its last six regular season outings against foes in the AP Top 25.

After missing their first nine three-point attempts of the evening, the Johnnies sank eight of their final 14 tries from distance to help spark the comeback. The Red Storm trailed by 14, 48-34, with 12 minutes to go before a 20-5 run gave St. John’s its first lead of the game, 54-53, on an LJ Figueroa 3-pointer with 7:28 to play. Villanova (20-6, 11-2 BIG EAST) would regain the lead two more times down the stretch, but St. John’s went ahead for good on another Figueroa trey with just under four minutes to play.

Figueroa led all scorers with 22 points, sinking three of his six tries from beyond the arc and seven of his eight attempts from the charity stripe. He also grabbed 12 rebounds for his fifth double-double of the season and recorded four steals. 16 of the sophomore’s 22 points came in the second half, a period that saw him go 3-for-4 from distance.

Mustapha Heron netted 14 of his 19 points in the second half. On the game, the junior guard shot 5-for-9 from the field, 2-for-4 from three and converted on seven of his eight tries from the stripe.

Justin Simon registered eight rebounds, four assists and 13 points, 12 of which came in the first half. Shamorie Ponds rounded out the Red Storm’s double digit scorers by posting 11 points thanks to a 7-for-8 effort from the line.

Marvin Clark II connected on two triples, surpassing the 1,000-point mark for his collegiate career.

The Red Storm’s comeback was the largest by a St. John’s team since overcoming a 20-point deficit to defeat DePaul in triple overtime on March 5, 2010.

St. John’s connected on 18 of its 20 free throw tries in the second half after going 7-for-13 in the opening 20 minutes.

The Red Storm committed just seven turnovers on the evening and forced 16, turning those Villanova miscues in 19 points.

Trailing 8-6 following a Heron layup with four minutes gone in the contest, St. John’s went cold and saw Villanova score seven straight to kick off a 21-4 run that put the Wildcats ahead by 19, 29-10, with just under nine minutes to play in the period.

Shooting 10-of-18 from the floor at that point, the Wildcats missed their next six shot attempts, but the Red Storm only managed to trim its deficit to 15, 29-14, following a Ponds layup with six minutes to go.

Down by 17, 37-20, with a minute and a half remaining until the intermission, St. John’s rattled off the period’s final six points to pull within 11 at the break. Simon put an exclamation point on the half by banking in three-quarter court buzzer beater for the Red Storm’s first 3-pointer of the game.

The Johnnies shot just 31 percent from the first half, including a 10 percent effort from beyond the arc.

Clark cut the Villanova advantage to eight with a three on the Red Storm’s first basket of the half. Trailing by that same eight-point margin at the first media timeout of the period, two free throws resulting from a Figueroa technical foul sparked a 6-0 spurt for Villanova, bumping the Wildcats’ lead back to 14, 48-34.

From there, the Red Storm rattled off the game’s next 11 points, pulling within three on a Ponds floater with 10:48 to go. Ponds scored six points on the run while Figueroa added a layup and Heron drained a triple.

After bumping its lead back to four on a Joe Cremo free throw, Villanova saw St. John’s nail three consecutive three-point attempts, as Figueroa pulled the Red Storm within one before Heron tied the game 40 seconds later and Figueroa struck again to give St. John’s its first lead of the game, 54-53, with 7:28 to play.

With his team trailing by a pair, 57-55, following a Phil Booth layup with four and a half to play, Figueroa hit his third and final three of the half to put the Red Storm back ahead by one. The Johnnies would never trail again. The Red Storm sealed the game by making 13 of its 14 free throw attempts in the final 3:11 of the game, including 12 in a row in the last minute and a half.

St. John’s returns to action on Wednesday night, traveling to Providence for an 8:30 p.m. showdown with the Friars.


Head Coach Chris Mullin:

On how the program has evolved…
“There’s been natural progression, which is nice. I’m really happy for our players. … I’m happy they got to experience a night like tonight. Madison Square Garden, people can talk about it, they tell you about it, but when you go out and do it and do it in a big time game where you need clutch performances up and down the line between defense, offense, making shots, and making free throws. … There are a lot of resilient guys [in our locker room]. I tell people all the time, they are not only good guys, they work hard, they do the right things to win and it doesn’t always come out that way. As far as preparation and mindset, togetherness is always there. I think it showed tonight.”

On second half adjustments…
“In the first half, our pick up point was a little low and not as aggressive as we wanted it to be. Then when we did get the shooters to put the ball on the floor, we weren’t making that second effort to fly out of the paint and get that next guy off of the line. Talking about it is one thing, we put it on the board, but they went out and did it. I thought it kind of fed each stop, each stop fed another stop. Then we started to get the rebounds. We kicked ahead and got some good looks. It’s always nice when your defense dictates the energy of the game. We always talk about on defense, the energy comes from talking and communicating. On offense the energy comes from passing and sharing.”

On winning a game despite Shamorie Ponds having an off shooting night…
“It says we’ve got much better players around him, and two of them are right here [Mustapha Heron and LJ Figueroa]. I thought these two guys had phenomenal games, big time baskets. A lot of them were playing off Shamorie’s passing or he was initiating offense. I thought Justin [Simon] did a good job getting the tempo going. … That’s not a game we win, maybe even a month ago. These guys have continued to improve individually, but I think they feel better about themselves as a group. You see that on the defensive end first and foremost. Offensively, they’ve always been good about sharing the ball. … Sometimes it takes a little bit of time to figure out where those shots are coming from, but their IQ is good. I know they’re trying to do the right thing. It just takes a little time to figure it out. I thought Shamorie did a good job of maintaining his playmaking and not forcing it.”

On the challenge of defending Villanova…
“[Eric Paschall and Phil Booth] are the biggest focus for us defensively. The big thing, and it’s hard to do, is to get them off the three and maintain contact and rely on your help. I thought our guys did a great job. We have some really long, athletic guys. They were all able to play the guy off the dribble and then keep some connections with the guy and force him into two’s. I thought we did a good job after that first half of really maintaining what we talked about defensively. To me the impressive part was we got down and found the game plan we talked about. We were able to relocate that and get it done.”

Junior guard Mustapha Heron:

On the energy of Madison Square Garden…
“The energy was crazy. I’ve never played in anything like this. Definitely can probably say that for most of our team. It was fun. The fans came out and they were amped. I think we gave them what they deserved and it was a good team win that we worked hard for.”

On the momentum the half-court shot gave them at the half…
“We were screaming the whole time in the locker room that we could come back. We just had to do it on the defensive end. I think we definitely did that. In that second half, we were talking to each other and told ourselves to have as much fun as possible on the defensive end and came out with a win.”

On being able to shift the momentum as quickly as they did…
“It’s a two half game. When we went [to Villanova], we controlled most of the game until the end when they came back and did a similar thing. The roles were reversed tonight. We never had our heads down. Even when their lead was 19, we just tried to keep pushing back and it worked to our favor.”

On where the team feels they are at with postseason play approaching…
“We’re not complacent. It’s good that we beat the defending national champions, but we still have the rest of BIG EAST play. Then we have a BIG EAST Tournament. So getting to the NCAA Tournament is third on our list. We’re worried about Providence and every game after that.”

Sophomore guard/forward LJ Figueroa:

On if he ever envisioned playing in an atmosphere like this
“My teammates put me in a great position to get me the ball today. Even though shots weren’t falling, they still were telling me to attack. Having Shamorie [Ponds] distribute like that and Mustapha [Heron] was on fire. It just kept me going.”

On what their defensive pressure does to the other team
“When we press, I’m at the top of the key. I see fear in the other players. I know my teammates have my back no matter what. Whether we’re down 10 or 20 or up 10 or 20, it doesn’t matter. When we pressure the basketball, we go all out and leave everything on the court.”

On whether the defensive pressure was the turning point of the game…
“One hundred percent. It was our defense. Our defense came together in the second half and did whatever it took to get the win. We had good leaders that led us in the second half. It was a great win.”

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