Top-ranked Villanova prepared for its game Wednesday night against the St. John’s team that upset No. 4 Duke on Saturday, not the Red Storm squad that had gone 0-11 in the Big East.
Still, that wasn’t good enough. The Wildcats had problems getting clean looks against the hustling defense of the visitors and, despite the late heroics of Jalen Brunson, fell, 79-75, in a stunning upset before a crowd of 10,900 at the Wells Fargo Center.
The Cats (22-2, 9-2 Big East), who saw a 54-game home winning streak against unranked teams broken, never led in the second half as the Red Storm (12-13, 1-11) played stifling defense against their perimeter shooters.
Villanova shot less than 40 percent from the field and hit just two three-point baskets in 18 tries in the period. In one stretch of more than 11 minutes, they scored just nine points and shot 4 of 16.
Brunson, who finished with a game-high 28 points, 14 of them coming in the final 2 minutes, 24 seconds, went just 2 of 11 from deep.
“They’re just a great team,” Brunson said. “They have great length and they’re coached by one of the great players of all time [in Chris Mullin] and he knows a lot. They’re just scrappy.”
Jay Wright wasn’t as shocked as the fans who silently walked out into the South Philadelphia night. The Wildcats coach watched St. John’s fall just short at No. 6 Xavier, then shock Duke at Madison Square Garden last Saturday. He knew his team would have their hands full.
“When they beat Duke, I said ‘No surprise,’ ” Wright said. “They beat us, and it’s not a surprise to us. We came ready to play. They just outplayed us. We had a game plan, they had a game plan, and they executed theirs better than we did.”
The Wildcats played without starting forward Eric Paschall, who was diagnosed with a concussion after a hard fall Sunday against Seton Hall. Collin Gillespie picked up most of his playing time, scoring 12 points on 4-of-6 shooting from three-point range, while the rest of the team went 4 of 27 from beyond the arc.
The Red Storm led 39-34 at the half and, after the Wildcats spurted in the opening minutes of the second half to briefly tie the game at 41, regained control and stayed in front.. They also had 6-foot-1 guard Shamorie Ponds, who scored eight of his 26 points down the stretch.
Ponds hit a runner with 2:38 to play for a 67-58 lead, matching St. John’s largest margin of the night. Brunson then put the Wildcats on his back, scoring the next eight points, including a conventional three-point play with 1:25 to play that narrowed the gap to one.
But the visitors always had an answer. Justin Simon (16 points, 10 rebounds, 7 assists) made two free throws with 46.0 seconds left to put them ahead 73-68. Brunson answered with two free throws and then after Tariq Owens went one of two from the line, Gillespie drained a second-chance three-pointer and it was 74-73 with 23.2 seconds to play.Ponds hit a free throw and Omari Spellman had an open look from three to give Villanova the lead, but he missed from the left wing. St. John’s hit four free throws in the last 7.2 seconds to clinch the win, breaking a 13-game losing streak against the Cats.