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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.

Villanova knows better than to overlook next opponent

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Villanova knows better than to overlook next opponent

Previewing one of Villanova's final games of the regular season:

No. 3 Villanova (25-3, 12-3 Big East) at Creighton (19-9, 8-7 Big East), Saturday at 2:30 p.m.
Third-ranked Villanova is getting healthy at just the right time. Wednesday's 93-62 blowout win over DePaul marked the first game since Dec. 5 that Jay Wright had a full nine-man rotation at his disposal. Phil Booth returned for the victory over DePaul, Booth's first game since breaking his hand back on Jan. 23.

Booth didn't miss a beat, scoring 14 points in 16 minutes off the bench. He provided his typical scoring punch in addition to being a steadying presence defensively. The fact that Booth should get four regular-season games under his belt before the Big East Tournament bodes well for Villanova. I wouldn't be surprised to see Wright continue to use Booth as a sixth man in order to leave Donte DiVincenzo in the starting lineup, where he has flourished over the last month.

While Jalen Brunson remains a leading candidate for National Player of the Year honors, Mikal Bridges has transformed into the Wildcats' leading man as of late. The reigning Big East Player of the Week scored 27 points against DePaul and is averaging 23.7 points in the last three games. Given the presence of Brunson, Booth and DiVincenzo on the perimeter, opponents can't afford to double-team Bridges. And there aren't many players in the country who can guard him one-on-one. Look for Bridges to remain in attack mode with March right around the corner.

Villanova has three regular-season games remaining. If the Wildcats win all three, they would win a fifth straight Big East regular-season championship. The next hurdle comes in the form of a trip to Creighton Saturday. The Bluejays have hit a rough patch with four losses in their last six games, including a 23-point thumping at Butler on Tuesday. But Villanova is well aware of how dangerous Creighton can be playing in the raucous CenturyLink Arena in Omaha.

The Wildcats will show the proper respect for Creighton despite the Bluejays' recent struggles. Look for the Wildcats to move one step closer to another Big East championship on Saturday.

Villanova 80, Creighton 70

Villanova cruises in Phil Booth's return

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Villanova cruises in Phil Booth's return

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Phil Booth returned to Villanova's lineup, and it looked as if he never left.

Booth had 14 points in his comeback from a broken right hand that sidelined him for seven games, and Mikal Bridges scored 27 points to lead No. 3 Villanova to a 93-62 victory over DePaul on Wednesday night.

Eric Paschall had 16 points, and Jalen Brunson added 11 points and seven assists to help the Wildcats (25-3, 12-3 Big East) beat DePaul for the 16th straight time.

Booth played 16 minutes, going 4 for 6 from the field and 2 for 4 from. He was injured Jan. 23 against Providence, had his cast removed Friday and practiced Tuesday.

Wildcats coach Jay Wright was pleasantly surprised at Booth's speedy recovery -- and his play.

"It's great to have him back," Wright said about Booth, who entered averaging 11.6 points. "It's a tribute to him. It looked like he never had anything wrong at practice. He looked good tonight, completely fine. It just amazes me."

Booth entered 2:53 into the contest and made his presence felt, scoring eight points in eight minutes to help the Wildcats to their 16-point halftime lead.

"It felt good to be back out there," Booth said. "A little rust but I wasn't worried about offense. My hand felt great."

Max Strus scored 21 points for the Blue Demons (10-17, 3-12).

The Wildcats had a comfortable 46-30 lead at the break. They surged to a 27-point advantage with 17:47 left in the contest by scoring 13 of the first 15 second-half points over 2:13. Bridges capped the run with a 3-pointer that made it 59-32 and practically erased any chances of a DePaul comeback.

"Our hands were down, we were late to a couple of rotations," Blue Demons coach Dave Leitao said of the Villanova spurt.

Leitao said the Wildcats have so many offensive options, and adding Booth makes it even harder to defend them.

"They are back to being whole," he said.

The game was tied at 16 after a Strus 3-pointer with 11:09 left in the half, but the Wildcats slowly and methodically pulled away.

Bridges had 15 points and Paschall added nine in the opening 20 minutes. Villanova was 10 for 14 from the free-throw line while the Blue Demons didn't attempt a foul shot. For the game, the Wildcats finished 15 for 21 from the line while DePaul was 0 for 1.

Big picture
DePaul: The Blue Demons need a victory in one of their three remaining games to reach four conference wins, which would be their most since joining the Big East.

Villanova: The four-time defending Big East champion Wildcats also have three regular-season games remaining. They are tied for first place with Xavier but own the tiebreaker with the Musketeers after beating them twice, including Saturday's 95-79 win at No. 4 Xavier.

Wright stuff
Wright recorded his 411th win at Villanova to close within two victories of tying Alexander Severance for first place in all-time coaching victories. In his 17th season at Villanova, Wright improved to 17-2 against DePaul.

Series dominance
The Wildcats have won 26 of the 34 matchups, with DePaul's last win coming Jan. 3, 2008. Villanova won at DePaul 103-85 on Dec. 27 in the other contest of this season's two-game series.

Strus for 3
Strus made three 3-pointers, finishing 3 for 9, to up his single-season total to 74 and pass Quentin Richardson for second-most in a season. Drake Diener, with 85 in the 2004-05 season, tops the list.

Up next
DePaul: Host Marquette on Saturday.

Villanova: At Creighton on Saturday.