Brandon Slater sank two free throws with 2.8 seconds remaining to lift Villanova over St. John’s, 66-65, in the quarterfinal round of the BIG EAST Tournament on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden.
The Red Storm (17-15) saw a 17-point lead slip away in the second half, but managed to retake the advantage with just over two minutes to play. The Johnnies held Villanova (24-7) without a field goal for the final 2:56 and without a point for 2:20 down the stretch before Slater’s game-winning free throw.
Julian Champagnie scored 23 points and grabbed nine rebounds in 38 minutes of action. The two-time First Team All-BIG EAST selection from Brooklyn also tallied four steals and dished out three assists.
Stef Smith was the only other Johnnie to finish in double figures, netting 10 points. The graduate student from Ontario gave the Red Storm its final lead of the night on an old-fashioned three-point play with just over two minutes to go and drew a pair of crucial charges down the stretch that allowed the Johnnies to stay within striking distance.
Posh Alexander registered nine points, five assists and three steals. The sophomore guard was forced to the bench twice in the second half during crucial stretches of play due to foul trouble.
After shooting 23.3 percent and scoring just 23 points in the opening 20 minutes, Villanova shot 50.0 percent from the field, including a 4-for-10 showing from deep, in the second stanza.
The Red Storm opened a sizeable lead early, using a 6-0 spurt to move ahead 19-10 following two free throws from Joel Soriano with 8:07 to go.
Caleb Daniels, who scored a team-high 19 points, answered with back-to-back 3s before the Johnnies rattled off nine straight to take their largest lead of the half, 28-16, with 5:08 to play. Montez Mathis kick-started the run with a 3-pointer before Champagnie stripped Collin Gillespie in the back court and went up for a bucket. Alexander found Esahia Nyiwe with an acrobatic dish for a two-handed flush before capping the run with a jumper of his own.
Villanova again answered with consecutive treys before the Red Storm took a seven-point edge, 30-23, into the locker room. The Wildcats have scored fewer than 23 points in an opening half just once this season, tallying 15 at Baylor on Dec. 12.
The Johnnies scored the first seven points of the second half to begin a 14-4 run, putting the Red Storm ahead by 17, 44-27, on an Alexander 3-ball with 15:38 to go. Champagnie led the way with seven points on the burst.
Facing its largest deficit of the game, Villanova quickly rattled off 10 straight points before Nyiwe stopped the bleeding with a put-back slam. The Wildcats answered with eight more to pull within one, 46-45, with 10:25 to go.
Almost the entirety of Villanova’s 18-2 run, which saw the Wildcats shoot 8-of-9 from the floor, came without Alexander on the floor. The sophomore exited the game after picking up his third foul with 14:05 to go and the Red Storm leading by 14. He did not re-enter until the Wildcats pulled within one at the 10:25 mark.
Villanova took its first lead of the game, 51-50, on a pair of Daniels free throws with just over eight minutes remaining, capping the Wildcats run at 24-6.
Villanova moved ahead by as many as four, 59-55, on two Jermaine Samuels free throws with 5:38 remaining, but the Red Storm stayed within striking distance thanks to a pair of field goals from Aaron Wheeler.
With his team down two, 64-62, after a Gillespie trip to the line with 2:22 to go, Smith went down the floor and scored three the hard way, giving the Red Storm its first lead in more than five minutes, 65-64.
The Red Storm held that lead until the final two seconds of the contest.
St. John’s Head Coach Mike Anderson
“Excuse our guys. It’s a really emotional locker room there and you can understand why. I thought our guys left their hearts, guts, and everything on the floor and they just came up a little short. Congrats to Villanova. They hung in there and I guess their experience kicked in gear at the end. I thought our guys, defensively, I thought we were there. We know a lead against a Villanova team in the second half, they’re going to make a run. They have been there, they’ve done that. But even with that being said, we had an opportunity to make some plays, we didn’t. They made some plays there at the end. But again, I’ve got a hurt locker room in there. But I can’t say enough. I love those guys – love each and every one of them. I thought they brought it, they brought it. If you watched the team, they just kind of rolled over the whole season. You saw a team that probably could and should have been in the NCAA [Tournament]. But this was our ticket to get in there.”
On Posh Alexander’s foul trouble…
“I thought it had an effect. I thought we had some guys that came in and gave us some significant minutes. But it had an effect from the standpoint of even coming out in the second half, how he’s going to play when he picks up the third, then you get the fourth. But I was proud of the other guys. I thought Stef [Smith] came in and gave us great minutes, Dylan [Addae-Wusu] did as well. We just started doing some things by committee.”
On the season as a whole…
“It was a team I said had a lot of question marks. We had to find some answers. Through practices and through games, we found some of the answers. And some of the answers were we didn’t come together quicker. I wish we could have come together a lot quicker in terms of guys understanding their roles. But like everyone else, you’ve got COVID and nine new players. You’ve got guys injured. Julian [Champagnie] had surgery before the off-season. Dylan [Addae-Wusu] had surgery and didn’t even go to the off-season, didn’t go to the fall practices. So we just had a lot of things that took place, adversity, and of course, I thought guys still stayed true to who they are. They worked every day and got better. We had a lot of games that came down to a play here, a play there, just like tonight. The thing I was more disappointed tonight more so was the free-throw line discrepancy. That took place here and it took place at their place. I thought our defense was pretty good. That’s the difference and then the free-throw line tonight.”
Junior forward Julian Champagnie…
On the team’s emotion after the loss to Villanova…
“I think everybody can see our faces. It’s rough. I feel like the guys, we gave it our all. … I wouldn’t change it for nothing. The guys, we played hard today. We came out, we executed on defense and even on offense. It’s just hard.”
Graduate student guard Stef Smith…
On falling on the wrong end of another close game…
“There’s been a lot of these games where it’s close and it just comes down to one play. … We’re just thinking about how we can make that one extra play. We came up short today, we didn’t do that.”