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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

BOX SCORE

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.

As key players head to NBA, where does Villanova go from here?

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As key players head to NBA, where does Villanova go from here?

The decisions made by Donte DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman to remain in the NBA draft should ultimately be a good thing for the Villanova basketball program. DiVincenzo and Spellman join college teammates Mikal Bridges and Jalen Brunson in the 2018 draft class and there's a chance all four of them are selected in the first round. 

Having four players drafted in the first round will do wonders for Villanova on the recruiting trail. The caliber of high school players that Jay Wright recruits want to play in the NBA. Wright could point to the four first-rounders the program produced this year in addition to former players like Kyle Lowry, Dante Cunningham, Josh Hart and Ryan Arcidiacono currently playing in the NBA.

While Wright's program will reap the benefits of producing NBA talent in the long run, there is no disputing the fact that DiVincenzo and Spellman deciding to leave is a significant blow to the program in the immediate future. DiVincenzo and Spellman would have been Villanova's two best players next season. Two guys capable of leading the Wildcats to a third national championship in four years. 

But their departures bring about a new reality for Wright — his four best players from last year's team are gone and he has only two proven players returning to lead his team into the 2018-19 season. 

The proven returners
Seniors Phil Booth and Eric Paschall combined to start 69 games last season and each played a critical role in winning the program's third national title. Next year will be Booth's fifth in the Villanova program and Paschall's fourth. These are proven performers and, more importantly, reliable leaders for what will largely be an inexperienced team. Booth will be one of the best guards in the Big East next season. Paschall is one of the most explosive athletes in the conference and his improved perimeter shooting last season was a key factor in Villanova winning the national championship.

Other key returners
This group will be the most important variable in Villanova's success next season. Collin Gillespie heads into his sophomore season poised for a big year. He made significant contributions off the bench as a freshman, overcoming an early season wrist injury that sidelined him for the better part of six weeks. A healthy and confident Gillespie will be a huge part of the Villanova backcourt. 

Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree rounded out Villanova's seven-man rotation last season. Like Gillespie, he enters his sophomore season with a wealth of big-game experience. Cosby-Roundtree proved his worth last season as a high-motor big man specializing in defensive energy, rebounding and running the floor. He'll now be asked to contribute on a more consistent level offensively.

Jermaine Samuels will play a critical role. Another rising sophomore, Samuels was making strides as a freshman before a broken hand sidelined him for an extended stretch during the beginning of conference play. He was never able to re-establish himself in the rotation once he returned. Samuels has all the physical tools to be a high-level Big East wing player in the mold of Hart and DiVincenzo. Keep an eye on Samuels.

Then there's big man Dylan Painter, who redshirted last season. Painter showed promise towards the end of his freshman season in 2017. The hope is that a year spent working on his strength and athleticism will pay dividends. The redshirt formula has been a big part of Villanova's success. Painter could become the latest example of that. 

The new arrivals
Wright welcomes in his highest-rated recruiting class in a decade. The headliner is five-star point guard Jahvon Quinerly, who originally committed to Arizona but then de-committed in the midst of the FBI investigation into college basketball recruiting. Wright is confident that Quinerly will be cleared of any wrongdoing and will be eligible next season. Quinerly should make an instant impact, the next in a long line of terrific Villanova lead guards.

Cole Swider should also see significant playing time as a freshman. Swider is listed as a forward but is more than capable of doing damage from the perimeter thanks to his elite-level shooting ability. Swider is a natural scorer and should be a perfect fit for Villanova's three-point heavy offense. Brandon Slater is the third member of Villanova's freshman class, an athletic wing who will have ample opportunity to play his way into the rotation.

Villanova will also bring in at least one graduate transfer for next season. Joe Cremo has already committed to Villanova after starring at Albany the last two seasons. He averaged just under 18 points last year and shot nearly 46 percent from three-point range. The question is whether Cremo's production will carry over to the Big East level. Wright is hopeful that it will. Look for Cremo to be a key addition to the Villanova backcourt. 

Donte DiVincenzo latest Villanova player to declare for NBA draft

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Donte DiVincenzo latest Villanova player to declare for NBA draft

Another Villanova star is moving on ... maybe.

Donte DiVincenzo has declared for the NBA draft but will not hire an agent, meaning he can test the draft waters but will maintain his college eligibility should he chose to return to school. 

The redshirt sophomore was voted the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player after scoring a career-high 31 points in Villanova' national title win over Michigan. 

“Donte has consistently improved in his time at Villanova through dedication and a commitment to our core values,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. “His play this season has created a unique opportunity for him to receive feedback from NBA teams in the draft process. We support Donte fully and our staff will work together with him and his family to help him assess the next step in his basketball career.”

DiVincenzo averaged 13.4 points and 3.5 assists while shooting 48.1 percent from the field. His numbers jumped to 15 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.7 assists 54.7 percent shooting during the NCAA Tournament.

He must decide by May 30 if he will enter the draft or return to school.

DiVincenzo is the latest Wildcat to declare for the draft, as the mass exodus of stars continues for Villanova.

Mikael Bridges and Jalen Brunson have declared and hired agents, marking the end of their collegiate careers, while redshirt freshman Omari Spellman will also test the waters.

On the bright side, Phil Booth and Eric Paschall announced they will both return for next season.