– by Adesina O. Koiki
A Lot of Sports Talk editor-in-chief
NEW YORK — The chances of St. John’s guard Justin Simon actually making his three-quarter-court heave just before the first-half buzzer were virtually the same odds his team had of pulling off one of the more remarkable in-game comebacks in the school’s history.
As it turned out, Simon’s prayer was answered. From there, the comeback was well and truly on for the Red Storm.
Simon’s successful length-of-the-floor shot gave St. John’s the momentum at halftime, and the rest of the team built off of that by stifling Villanova’s offense in the entire second half as the Red Storm came back from a 19-point first-half deficit to defeat the No. 13 Wildcats 71-65 in an electric, sold-out Madison Square Garden on Sunday evening.
“I’m happy they got to experience a night like tonight,” Red Storm coach Chris Mullin said after the game about his players. “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].”
Guard LJ Figueroa scored 16 of his 22 points in the second half, including the three-pointer that put St. John’s up for good at 59-57 with 3:54 remaining. His defense was arguably more important, coming up with four steals in the game as the Red Storm held Villanova to just 5-for-24 shooting in the final 20 minutes.
But before the start of the second half, the Red Storm were in desperate need of a pick-me-up, and Simon’s 69-foot three-pointer that banked in off the glass was just the jump start that was necessary, no matter how unlikely it was in coming about.
“We were screaming the whole time in the locker room that we could come back,” said St. John’s guard Mustapha Heron, who finished 19 points. “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.”
The win was made all the more impressive given that the Red Storm’s all-everything guard and leading scorer, Shamorie Ponds, was held to just 11 points on 2-for-14 shooting.
Villanova came out with the same defensive intensity that the Red Storm had in the second, and the Wildcats were able to jump on St. John’s with their normal means of attack: a high volume of three-point attempts. Before Simon’s mid-court miracle, Villanova had as many three-pointers made (eight) than St. John’s had total field goals made.
The Wildcats did not trail at any point in the first half, and Eric Paschall’s three with 8:54 remaining gave Villanova a 29-10 advantage. Unfortunately for Villanova, that three was half of Paschall’s total of made shots in the game, as both he and guard Phil Booth, the team’s two leading scorers, each went just 2-for-11 from the field.
Villanova still had a 14-point lead with just under 12 minutes remaining in the game when the game’s next turning point came, as the Red Storm, after a couple of Ponds’ free throws cut the lead to 12, turned over Villanova while applying a full-court press, leading to a Figueroa layup. Villanova head coach Jay Wright called a time out, then protested the lack of a foul call when guard Collin Gillespie had the ball stripped, which led to a technical foul called on Wright.
Their half-court defense went to another level after they pressed us and the crowd got going,” Wright said. “We had it to 11, 12 in the second half there and they started pressing us. They got that turnover at half court and we got the technical that really got them going. That was the turning point in the game.”