No. 1 Villanova runs into NCAA's newest giant killer

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No. 1 Villanova runs into NCAA's newest giant killer

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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.

Big picture
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.

Paschall out
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.

Up next
St. John's hosts Marquette on Saturday.

The Wildcats host Butler on Saturday.

Donte DiVincenzo, Phil Booth help No. 4 Villanova survive La Salle scare

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Donte DiVincenzo, Phil Booth help No. 4 Villanova survive La Salle scare

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Duke's run at No. 1 ended with a court-storming loss at Boston College and No. 2 Kansas wilted in a rare home loss.

Undaunted and undefeated, Villanova is charging toward the top spot.

"We played the next No. 1 team in the country," La Salle coach John Giannini said Sunday.

The Explorers got a taste of how tough it can be to knock off the Wildcats. La Salle scored more baskets, sank more 3-pointers, had more steals and still was just another victim in Villanova's unbeaten season.

Phil Booth scored 18 points and Donte DiVincenzo had 18 points and 10 rebounds to help the fourth-ranked Wildcats avoid an upset in a 77-68 win over La Salle.

"They don't have bad games," Giannini said.

This was as close as one gets for the Wildcats (10-0). They were sloppy -- throwing the ball away several times on outlet passes -- slumped from the 3-point line and could not shake the pesky Explorers until the final minutes of the game to win their 21st straight Big 5 game.

The Wildcats had depth and a massive edge from the free-throw line to sink the Explorers. La Salle (5-6) was a two-man show in B.J Johnson and Amar Stukes, and that was enough to give them a 62-61 lead with 4:47 left.

But the Wildcats had Booth and DiVincenzo, and Jalen Brunson scored 17 and Mikal Bridges, quiet all game, came to life for crucial baskets late to seal the win. Throw in the whopping disparity from the line -- Villanova made 27 of 35, La Salle was 4 of 5 -- and the Wildcats made their case for why they should fight it out with No 3. Michigan State (9-1) to become the new No. 1 team in the AP Top 25.

"It's a great lesson for our guys. The score isn't always what the game is really about," Villanova coach Jay Wright said.

Booth put the Wildcats ahead with three free throws and followed with an assist on DiVincenzo's 3-pointer that made it 67-62 and finally gave them a bit of breathing room. Bridges, coming off a career-high 28 points against Gonzaga, went inside for a pair of tough buckets and a 71-64 lead that brought the Villanova fans to their feet.

"These guys have played in these games. They're not surprised," Wright said.

Johnson led the Explorers with 21 points and Stukes had 16 to help keep slim hopes alive of pulling off a stunner. The duo combined to hit seven 3-pointers and carried La Salle to the brink of victory.

"When we're out there and we started making plays, we felt like we could do that against anybody," Stukes said. "The shots started falling. We just had to play defense."

The Wildcats beat No. 12 Gonzaga by 16 points this week at Madison Square Garden and were expected to roll against the Explorers at the Wells Fargo Center. The foundation for their perfect record had come from the 3-point line; the Wildcats hit a school-record 19 against Saint Joseph's and buried 10 against the Zags. Against the Explorers, the 3s dried up in the first half. Villanova missed its first six attempts and missed eight of 10 overall in the half.

La Salle went the opposite direction in the first half. Shooting a miserable 29 percent from 3-point range this season, the Explorers went 6 of 12 to take a 38-37 lead. Stukes hit two straight 3s and his bucket a tick before the horn gave La Salle the lead at the break.

Villanova, La Salle, Saint Joseph's, Temple and Penn make up the city series field. The Wildcats have emerged as the class of the city and haven't been defeated by a Philadelphia-area team since Temple won on Dec. 5, 2012.

Big picture
La Salle: The Explorers lost for the 15th time in the last 16 games against Villanova. But a lot of teams lose all the time to `Nova. It's what the Explorers do from here that will define their season. They have two more nonconference games to shape up before they open the Atlantic 10 season Dec. 30 against St. Louis. The Explorers haven't made the NCAA Tournament since 2013 and will need more consistent performances like they had in the first half to get there again this season.

Villanova: The Wildcats win again. Even when the score is close, the outcome never seems in doubt against a city school. Los Angeles Lakers rookie Josh Hart, one of the stars of the 2016 national championship team, sat courtside and earned a standing ovation as the alum of the game. He trash-talked Johnson in the second half and laughed when the La Salle forward buried a bucket after their exchange.

Ouch
Villanova played without G Collin Gillespie because of a left wrist injury suffered in practice.

Up next
La Salle: Hosts Mercer on Sunday.

Villanova: The Wildcats finish the Big 5 season Wednesday at Temple.

Good news for Villanova: Phil Booth is finally healthy

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Good news for Villanova: Phil Booth is finally healthy

VILLANOVA, Pa. — Phil Booth can live with hitting only Villanova's second-biggest buzzer beater in a national championship game.

Let's throw it back to April 2016 in Houston.

"Five seconds to go in the half. Booth. He has time. Looks up, puts it up. And got it!" TBS announcer Jim Nantz said.

"Big time dagger. Booth!" analyst Bill Raftery said.

Just like that, Booth's jumper at the horn cut North Carolina's lead to 5 at halftime.

Nantz and Raftery are about as good as it gets in the broadcast booth, but let one of the stars of the game call this one.

"That was more of a scramble around. Clock went down. Josh (Hart) made a great block and I was just trying to find a spot. I was seeing guys coming down the court trying to catch guys in transition," Booth said as he watched a highlight reel on YouTube. "I saw the clock running, so I had to make a play; either pass or shoot it, so I found a spot at the foul line."

Kris Jenkins won the NCAA title with a 3 at the buzzer and stuffed trophy cases at Villanova's state-of-the art complex.

But ask your friends at a local Nova hangout such as Kelly's Taproom who was the leading scorer in that game, and you might win a round stumping them on Booth. Booth, now a 6-foot-3, 190-pound junior guard, averaged only 7 points that season and was scoreless in 12 minutes against Kansas in the regional final. Against the Tar Heels, Booth scored a career-high 20 on 6 of 7 shooting (two 3s) and 6 of 6 free throws.

"I didn't really know or pay attention to how many points I had until I got to my phone and saw all the texts," he said. "I had no idea. I just knew we won the game."

Booth also knew he couldn't play much more on a painful left knee that even ached in warmups against the Tar Heels. Booth has no idea how the knee was injured; he just knows it wasn't the result of a direct hit and it started early in his sophomore year. He had surgery to repair a meniscus tear about a month after the national championship game and came back ready to help the Wildcats try and defend the title.

Booth felt an unrelated "flare up" on his left kneecap early last season and his year was cut to only three games. Booth against underwent surgery at the end of the season.

He missed Villanova repeat as Big East champions and was a helpless spectator when its season ended with a loss to Wisconsin in just the second game of the NCAA Tournament.

Booth is the only player wearing a suit, his hat backward and a T-shirt draped over his shoulder, in a Big East tournament championship photo that hangs in the hall of the basketball complex.

He's a future pro if healthy, and considered the risk had he pushed through the pain last season. Booth did practice at the end of the season before he was shut down near the NCAA Tournament.

"It was all about the long-term thing. It could come back. It could not," he said. "I decided to do the thing that was best for long-term playing."

Booth, whose father, Phil Booth Sr., is a Philadelphia native who starred at Northeast High School and Coppin State University, and Jalen Brunson are the only returning players who started last season's opener. Jenkins, Hart (a Lakers first-round draft pick) and Darryl Reynolds all left as part of the winningest senior class (129-17; 63-9 Big East) in program history. Donte DiVincenzo, Mikal Bridges, Omari Spellman and Jermaine Samuels, widely considered one of the top high school recruits in the nation, kept the Wildcats as Big East favorites and a preseason national championship contender.

Booth has finished his rehab, but coach Jay Wright eased him back into workouts at the start of the semester. One day on, one day off. Wright, starting his 17th season at Villanova, said Booth will hit full speed with no restrictions next week.

"I'm as positive as I could possibly be right now," Wright said. "He's unique because I think he approached this with a long-term (view) to his career and his life."

Booth insisted his knees are fine and he's ready to help Villanova think long-term — all the way to the first weekend of April. His last basket against North Carolina put the Wildcats up 69-64 and had analyst Grant Hill raving: "How many times have we seen guys off the bench step in the finals and play big?!"

And that was on one bum knee.

With two good ones, Booth just may shine again in a title game.