NEW YORK — It wasn’t easy and it definitely wasn’t pretty, but the Villanova Wildcats all but guaranteed their NCAA tournament berth Wednesday night with an ugly 66-53 win over St. John’s.
The Johnnies played a great defensive first half, deploying ten different players over the first twenty minutes. They kept Villanova off the free throw line completely while forcing ten turnovers, but the best they could muster was a 24-24 draw going into the break.
The second half fell into a familiar rhythm: Villanova would start to break away before St. John’s clawed back, with the occasional 50-50 call from the refs garnering boos from the Garden crowd. With a little over five minutes remaining, the Wildcats started to stretch it out, pushing the margin to a double-digit lead they wouldn’t come close to relinquishing over the rest of the game.
Mouphatou Yarou led the Wildcats, turning in a brilliant all-around performance. The 6’ 10” senior was effective all over the floor, hitting medium-range jumpers and finishing with touch in the paint, notching 18 points on 9-for-10 shooting to go with seven boards. (The rest of Villanova finished a robust 13-for-44 from the field.) His effort was complemented by JayVaughn Pinkston and Ryan Arcidiano, who combined for 27 points, 15 boards and 6 assists. The Wildcats were also better at making the Red Storm pay for their mistakes, doubling them up in points off turnovers, 26-13.
St. John’s battled, but between some really poor decision-making (the ratio of attempted alley oops to completed ones was rather high) and inability to find a hot hand to carry them, they just couldn’t keep up. (The loss of leading scorer D'Angelo Harrison to suspension earlier this season likely didn't help.) Phil Greene and Jakarr Sampson combined for 29 points, but they needed a whopping 37 field goal attempts to get there. Center Chris Obekpa did his best to fill the defensive stat sheet, notching four steals and four blocks, but Yarou’s effort was the difference on a night high on volume but short on efficiency.
"Usually in our offense, we're going to Pinkston in the post, and we have Mouph around the perimeter." said Villanova coach Jay Wright after the game, praising his center's play. "And down the stretch we went to Mouph in the post. He was big...he was the only guy who could post up at the end."
This game was brutal to watch. The two teams combined for 34 turnovers and only made 5 of 27 three-point attempts (good for 18.5%), but Wright’s squad wasn’t looking for style points. They just needed to avoid the upset to affirm their spot in the tournament, so it was a successful evening. This was Villanova’s twentieth victory of the season, and while they do have twelve losses, those are offset by shiny wins against Louisville, Syracuse, Marquette and Georgetown.
The Wildcats face off against the second-seeded Louisville Cardinals tomorrow night at 7:00pm. St. John’s falls to 16-15 and will now wait to find out which postseason tournament they land in.
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