Villanova puts away St. John's in Big East opener
NEW YORK - For a good chunk of the first half and part of the second Wednesday night, St. John's looked like the team fighting for an NCAA berth and not Villanova.
But after watching the Red Storm be the aggressor in the sloppy, turnover-filled contest, the Wildcats decided to pick up the tempo and left their opponent in the dust, capturing a 66-53 victory in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden.
The victory for the seventh-seeded Wildcats (20-12) all but wrapped up an at-large invitation to the NCAA tournament, and enabled them to play a quarterfinal game Thursday night against fourth-ranked Louisville (26-5), the event's second seed.
Villanova again played fast and loose with the basketball against the St. John's pressure, committing 17 turnovers, eight of them by freshman point guard Ryan Arcidiacono. But while the Red Storm also had 17 turnovers, the Cats outscored them, 26-13, in points off the mistakes.
"We struggled in the first half," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "I felt in the second half we got more aggressive against their pressure and started to make some plays and get to the foul line. In the first half, we were just too tentative against their pressure and created offense for them."
Mouphtaou Yarou hit his first seven shots from the field and scored 18 points to lead the Wildcats. Arcidiacono added 15 plus five assists, and JayVaughn Pinkston chipped in with 12 and a team-high nine rebounds.
St. John's came all the way back from a 12-point first-half deficit with an 18-6 run that tied the game at 24 at the break. The Red Storm led, 33-31, three minutes into the second half and appeared to have the Wildcats on their heels.
But Arcidiacono, who had just one basket to that point, drained a three-pointer and an 18-foot jumper to spark a 7-0 run that gave 'Nova the lead for good. He helped seal the game with seven free throws down the stretch.
"I thought I had to score more for our team," Arcidiacono said. "I felt like I had to make a play. I hit a three and that pull-up jumper, and I felt good after that. In the second half, I was like, all right, I'm not going to let us lose."
The Wildcats later established some distance with a 10-2 run that gave them a 50-40 lead with 8 minutes, 8 seconds remaining. The spurt included two free throws off a technical foul called against St. John's JaKarr Sampson for hanging on the rim during a battle under the basket.
The Red Storm (16-15), playing without the suspended D'Angelo Harrison, their leading scorer during the season, got as close as five but the Wildcats got the lead up to 12 and were never threatened after that.
Villanova now gets another chance at Louisville, which has gone 10-2 since losing, 73-64, to the Cats on Jan. 22 at the Wells Fargo Center, with its NCAA hopes looming brighter.
"I knew there was a chance we could lose this one and then have a long week at home waiting," Wright said. "Right now I don't have to think about it. I can think about us playing Louisville."
Contact Joe Juliano at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @joejulesinq.