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It was the worst-case scenario.
Posh Alexander, the St. John’s starting point guard was out with a right ankle injury, while Villanova stars Collin Gillespie and Justin Moore, expected to be out, not only were surprising available, but also in the starting lineup.
Then, it got worse.
Julian Champagnie hurt his hip on a drive to the basket. He missed the end of the first half and the start of the second half and clearly wasn’t himself when he returned.
Without the two linchpins, St. John’s never really had a chance Tuesday night. The No. 15 Wildcats cruised to a 75-69 victory at the Garden, ending the Red Storm’s two-game winning streak.
In the first meeting between the teams, 10 days ago, Villanova blew open a close game late in the first half. This time, the Wildcats took control early in the second half, using a 13-0 spurt to turn a three-point lead into a 16-point cushion.
St. John’s did make a huge run, ripping off an 18-4 spurt to get within three with 35 seconds left, but never got closer after Tareq Coburn’s potential game-tying 3-pointer was off target.
With 4:16 left in the first half, Champagnie drove hard through the lane — and fell hard. He went to the locker room soon after. During the break, he didn’t seem right, and went back to the locker room. He eventually returned after the first media timeout of the second half, but he missed a wide open layup and was short on most of his jump shots.
Leading up to the game, the expectation was both teams would be shorthanded. Alexander wasn’t able to finish the Red Storm’s win Saturday at Butler and didn’t take part in warm-ups. But Villanova’s Gillespie and Moore did, though coach Jay Wright on Monday had made it seem unlikely the duo would play.
While Gillespie was held scoreless, Moore scored 14 points on 3-for-9 shooting. And Alexander’s absence was clearly felt. St. John’s had very little success pressuring Villanova without its top playmaker and settled for long, contested jump shots. Alexander’s s replacement, Dylan Addae-Wusu, had nearly as many turnovers (three) as assists (five).
The second half was ugly until the end. St. John’s was beaten up inside and on the glass. The effort and focus were at times lacking. Villanova had far too many wide-open looks, and, after holding the Wildcats to one offensive rebound in the first half, St. John’s allowed them to grab six, which turned into 10 second-chance points.
St. John’s needed to find scoring from other avenues, and it wasn’t there. Only Aaron Wheeler (game-high 31 points) showed up. The four other transfers — Joel Soriano, Montez Mathis, Stef Smith and Tareq Coburn — shot a combined 6-for-35 from the field. Mathis missed his first 11 shots.
Despite a poor shooting first half, and an even worse start, St. John’s trailed by just six, 34-28, at the break. It started 5-for-22 from the field and 2-for-11 from 3-point range, but stayed within contact by protecting the defensive glass (Villanova had just one offensive rebound in the opening 20 minutes) limiting the Wildcats to 2-for-10 shooting from 3-point range and keeping turnovers to a minimum. The Red Storm turned five offensive rebounds into seven second-chance points and were led by Wheeler’s 12 points.
Moore and Gillespie were both clearly limited in that first half, shooting a combined 1-for-7 from the field. Villanova’s best player was Eric Dixon, who hurt St. John’s to the tune of 12 first-half points, a big factor in the Wildcats’ 20-8 edge on points in the paint.