PHILADELPHIA — St. John’s watched a desperation heave clang off the rim and players broke into wide smiles and raised their arms in triumph. The Red Storm ran toward their reserves for joyous, leaping chest bumps that the program waited more than three decades to bust out for such an occasion.
Winless and woeful no more, the Red Storm are abruptly toppling Final Four contenders.
St. John’s took down another of the nation’s elite, and stunned No. 1 Villanova 79-75 on Wednesday night for its second win over a top-five team this week — and first over the top-ranked team in 33 years.
Shamorie Ponds scored 26 points to spark the Red Storm (12-13, 1-11 Big East) to their first conference win of the season and easily their best week since Chris Mullin was in uniform, not the coach.
Mullin played for St. John’s when it beat No. 1 Georgetown 66-65 on Jan. 26, 1985. And Mullin was on the sideline exhorting his players in the final minutes of this shocker.
St. John’s beat then-No. 4 Duke Blue Devils 81-77 at Madison Square Garden on Saturday, snapping an 11-game losing streak. It was the first win for St. John’s since Dec. 20 against Saint Joseph’s.
“These are huge wins,” Mullin said. “It’s a testament to their perseverance, unselfishness with each other, their confidence.”
The Wildcats (22-2, 9-2) ended a nine-game winning streak and will surely tumble from the top of the national rankings, where they’ve spent the last five weeks at No. 1.
Jalen Brunson, a leading candidate for national player of the year, nearly rallied Villanova to victory down the stretch. He buried a jumper and scored on a fastbreak set up by Omari Spellman’s blocked shot to make it 67-63. St. John’s turned the ball over off the inbounds play and Brunson, who led the Wildcats with 28 points, made the Red Storm pay on a crashing layup that sent him to the line. He hit the free throw to pull Nova to 67-66 with 1:34 left.
St. John’s wasn’t giving this one up.
Marvin Clark II flexed his muscles toward the St. John’s bench when he was fouled on a bucket. He sank the free throw to push the Red Storm’s lead back to four.
Collin Gillespie nearly helped make it 10 straight wins for the Wildcats when he pulled them to 74-73 on a 3-pointer with 23 seconds left. But that was about the only clutch 3 of the game for the Wildcats — they missed 25 of 33 attempts.
“It was desperation time trying to find a way to steal it in the end,” Brunson said. “If we had 30 more seconds, we possibly could have got it done.”
The Red Storm held on from the free throw line for the epic victory — instead of a sad collapse.
“We’ve got a nice chunk of the season left,” Mullin said. “We can do some damage.”
The Blue Devils and Wildcats are certainly believers.
The Red Storm used just six players — and had the one that mattered most in Ponds. Ponds, a 6-foot-1 guard, scored a career-high 37 points against Villanova in early January at Madison Square Garden that led the Red Storm to the brink of an upset. In a season where the Wildcats have routinely roughed up the Big East, St. John’s only lost 78-71 and stayed tight until the final 2 minutes.
Who knew, it was just a sign of better days ahead for the Red Storm.
“It’s big for the university and it’s also big for us,” Ponds said.
The Red Storm picked up where they left off against Duke and took it to the Wildcats from the opening tip. St. John’s snapped a tie game with a 6-0 run and that gave them a 47-47 lead. Ponds hit his second 3 of the game for a 50-43 lead and they still led by 8 with 4:50 left.
Ponds had 15 points, four assists and four rebounds — plus a 3 which he failed to hit the first time against Villanova — and helped St. John’s take a 39-34 lead into halftime. St. John’s shot 56 percent from the floor and forced the Wildcats into six turnovers. Bryan Trimble Jr., who played in sparkly green sneakers that would have made Eagles fans proud, hit a 3 for a 31-29 lead.
“When they beat Duke, I said it was no surprise,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said.
St. John’s can hang with the nation’s elite — it lost by five points to No. 5 Xavier in a streak of three straight games against AP Top 25 teams. But how will the Red Storm fare when the competition softens up a bit compared to this recent stretch of games?
Villanova is set for a rematch with Butler, the only other team to beat them this season. Kelan Martin scored 24 points, Paul Jorgensen added a career-high 23 and Butler made 15 3-pointers in a 101-93 upset on Dec. 30.
Villanova forward Eric Paschall sat out and was entered in the team’s concussion protocol. He’ll miss at least another week. Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree got the start. Jermaine Samuels returned from a broken left hand and played for the first time since Dec. 27. The Wildcats are still without starter Phil Booth, sidelined indefinitely with a broken hand.
St. John’s hosts Marquette on Saturday.
The Wildcats host Butler on Saturday.