'Cats storm the Garden
James Bell had 10 points and a key 3-pointer in overtime to help the 'Cats defeat St. John's. Lucas Migliarino
It has been a tough season for the men's basketball team thus far, but the Wildcats made a big stride with their 79-76 overtime victory on the road over St. John's on Saturday. Junior point guard Maalik Wayns turned in his third straight impressive performance with a game-high 28 points, leading Villanova to its first set of back-to-back wins since the 'Cats started the season 4-0.
The win evened the Wildcats' record at 10-10, and the victory is perhaps the young squad's most impressive one of the season. Despite playing an equally inexperienced St. John's team that includes just one senior, three juniors and the rest freshmen, Villanova showed resiliency in the back and forth, come-from-behind victory.
Down by 10 with less than seven minutes to play, a timely 17-7 run for Villanova tied the game at 67 with 30 seconds remaining in regulation. A steal by sophomore guard James Bell with eight seconds left gave the Wildcats a chance for the win, but Wayns missed a jumper in the final seconds and the game progressed into overtime.
Villanova started the extra period powerfully with an 8-1 run that featured 3-pointers by Bell and junior guard Dominic Cheek. However, similar to the team's previous win over Seton Hall, the 'Cats struggled to ice the game down the stretch. St. John's came back to draw within a point with 23 seconds left to play. Wayns converted on a pair of clutch free throws to stretch the lead to three, however, and freshman forward Sir'Dominic Pointer missed the would-be tying 3-pointer at the buzzer for St. John's.
Prior to Villanova's comeback, the game was a back and forth affair. St. John's surged to an early lead out of the gate, leading by as many as eight points in the early minutes.
The Wildcats fought back to take a 20-19 lead by the 7:30 mark of the first half, and led by five at the break. In the second half, St. John's came out firing on all cylinders and built a 10-point lead following an 8-0 run that culminated with less than seven minutes to play. From that point, Villanova was again able to swing the momentum back in its favor and emerge with the victory.
Villanova's edge on the boards was an instrumental part of notching the win, as the Wildcats out-rebounded St. John's by a margin of 52-36. Junior center Mouphtaou Yarou pulled down 13 boards and freshman forward JayVaughn Pinkston grabbed 12. Pinkston also scored 13 points, securing his second consecutive double-double. He has played increasingly well as the season has progressed, and has logged over 30 minutes of playing time in each of the last three games.
The combined presence of Pinkston and Yarou in the paint gives Villanova an advantage in the low post that is significantly better than anything the 'Cats have had in recent years.
The Wildcats now have a conference record of 3-5, and have moved out of the basement of the Big East standings where they had been stuck for most of conference play. They now stand ahead of St. John's, Providence, DePaul and last-place Pittsburgh, which has yet to post a conference win. The Wildcats are also within a game and a half of five other teams. As noted earlier, Wayns' recent hot streak has been vital to the team's progress.
In the last three games (a close loss to Cincinnati and wins over Seton Hall and St. John's), Wayns has averaged over 30 points per game. The explosion has come immediately on the heels of one of the worst games of his career: a three point, 0-for-7 field goal effort against Syracuse. His leadership and offensive production is clearly of the utmost importance to the Wildcats' success, not only because of the points he scores, but also because of the opportunities he creates for his teammates when opposing defenses are forced to double-team him.
Assists, however, have not been Villanova's strong suit this season. On Saturday, Cheek led the team in assists with just three, and the Wildcats as a team have averaged only 11.6 assists per game thus far, which is second-worst in the Big East.
While the 'Cats certainly seem to have turned their season in the right direction of late, Saturday's win over St. John's was not without its flaws. Villanova missed 11 free throws, shooting just 57 percent from the line—a waste of easy points that could have easily lost them the game had St. John's not shot just as poorly, missing 11 free throws of their own.
Apart from Saturday's game, free-throw shooting has actually been one of Villanova's strengths this season. The Wildcats led the conference in free throw percentage coming into the game, but dropped behind South Florida and Connecticut afterward.
The Wildcats also struggled mightily with shots from beyond the arc, an area in which they are one of the worst teams in the conference percentage-wise but at which they must improve if they hope to compete in the Big East. They converted just 25 percent of their 3-point attempts on Saturday. Villanova also turned the ball over 23 times—another statistic that could have proved catastrophic had St. John's not committed 21 turnovers of its own.
Still, in the battle of two young teams, Villanova got the job done in crunch time and came out on top in the only category that truly matters: the final score.
The Wildcats will face off against the Marquette Golden Eagles this Saturday at the Wells Fargo Center at 12 p.m.
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