NEW YORK – Nobody can say the Wildcats don’t have a bench after this game.
For most of the day, that’s all they had.
With the starters sputtering and No. 3 Villanova in danger of losing at to a St. John’s team with a losing record, reserves Donte DiVincenzo and Eric Paschall came off the bench and combined to make 11 of 16 shots for 28 points to go with seven rebounds as the sloppy Wildcats held off scrappy St. John’s 70-57 at Madison Square Garden (see instant replay).
With senior superstars Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins combining to shoot 5 of 23 overall and 3 of 13 from three, DiVincenzo shot 7 for 10 from the field and 3 for 5 from three for a career-high 19 points, and Paschall made 4 of 6 shots for nine points.
Villanova’s five starters combined for 13 baskets (on 37 shots), DiVincenzo, a red-shirt freshman, and Paschall, a red-shirt sophomore, combined for 11 baskets (on 16 shots).
“We all want to set a tone and start the game off, and when we don’t do that, it’s comforting to know that we have Eric, we have 'Tay (DiVincenzo), two guys who could start in a lot of programs, coming off the bench, bringing incredible energy,” Hart said.
“That’s something we always know we have and something that makes the team what it is. When the seniors are slipping up and we’re not playing Villanova basketball and not playing the way we should be playing, we know the young guys are going to step up and bring us energy and get us going.”
St. John’s, a young and inexperienced team in its second year under Chris Mullin, scored the game’s first six points and led most of the first half while it looked like the defending national champs were sleepwalking.
“A hundred percent we didn’t bring it, and that’s on the three seniors, Kris, Darryl and myself,” Hart said. “We have to set a tone. We have to be examples for these guys, and that’s something that we didn’t do.
“'Tay and Eric came off the bench and brought energy, but that’s something that we can’t have continue, especially going down the stretch. We have to find it within ourselves to be committed to Villanova basketball and bring it from the start for 40 minutes, and that’s something we didn’t do today.”
With St. John’s leading by six late in the first half, it was DiVincenzo who scored eight points in four minutes to spark a 19-7 run to close out the first half and give the Wildcats the lead for good.
But this was still a five-point game at 53-48 with 6 and a half minutes left before Villanova finally pulled away and built the lead as large as 17.
“That was an example of a young, hungry team just playing harder than a veteran team and wanting it a little more,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said.
“They just took it to us. Disappointed in our effort and impressed with St. John’s impressiveness and tenacity … and we didn’t respond. They’re just young. They’re going to be good. I hope we can learn from this and play better.”
This was the first time in Villanova’s last 33 games that neither Hart nor Jenkins scored 12 points. Last time it happened? St. John’s at the Garden a year ago.
But that team had Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu, who bailed out Jenkins and Hart with 38 points.
This team does not have that kind of depth.
At least, they didn’t until now.
“'Tay played 31 minutes, Eric played 26 minutes – they’re playing starter minutes,” Hart said.
“They brought it every day in practice last year when they weren’t able to get out there and play for us, and this year they’re doing it in practice but they’re also doing it in games now.
“Those two guys aren’t looked at anybody in this program as bench players., They’re looked at as guys we rely on and guys who have big roles, and it’s good to see them bring energy and get us going.”
DiVincenzo took a red-shirt year after breaking his foot eight games into last season. Paschall red-shirted in 2016 after transferring in from Fordham, where he was Atlantic 10 Freshman of the Year in 2015.
DiVincenzo’s previous career high was 13 points against Central Florida and Penn. Paschall scored as many as 31 points in a game at Fordam, but his previous Big East high was eight points at Creighton.
For both to record Big East career scoring highs at Madison Square Garden in a game where the 'Nova starters were uncharacteristically ineffective is definitely an encouraging sign for the Wildcats.
When Villanova needed them, they showed up in a big way.
“Donte, no one on our team is surprised by that, but it’s good that other teams see that and it’s good that he’s doing it in games, on the road,” Wright said. “Getting Eric going is important for us.
“Kris and Josh and Jalen (Brunson) have been in so many games and they’ve carried us so many times that we know we got that. But the next thing that those guys have to learn is that some nights, when teams try to take them out of it, they’ve got to make plays for their teammates. And Josh has done that a lot. We’ve just got to get the other guys doing it.”
Villanova is now 17-1 overall and 5-1 in the Big East. The Wildcats have now won three straight games since their only loss of the year, at Butler on Jan. 4. They’re 35-3 in their last 38 games and a Division 1-best 114-14 in four years with Hart and Jenkins on the floor.
With its fourth straight loss, St. John’s fell to 8-11 overall and 2-4 in the Big East.
Thanks in large part to the only two guys who played Saturday who weren’t part of last year’s championship run.
“I think we’re a good team now, but I think we could be a great team if we all play that way,” Hart said.
“Seniors set the tone and start the game and then we have guys come off the bench and there’s no dropoff. So we’re happy we have those guys, we just have to get everyone to bring that energy from the start.”