Saturday, February 26, 2011
Posted: 4:31 p.m. Updated: 6:20 p.m.
By Dave ZeitlinCSNPhilly.com contributor
St. Johns was so adept at scoring Saturday that the Red Storm even made one basket on the wrong end.
But that gift an accidental tip-in from St. Johns senior D.J. Kennedy in the first half couldnt help Villanova stay with the explosive Red Storm as the Wildcats lost a Big East matinee at the Wells Fargo Center, 81-68.
No. 23 St. Johns (19-9 overall, 11-5 Big East), which recently earned its first national ranking in 11 years, has now won eight of its last nine games and is peaking at the right time.
And then theres Villanova, which continues to plummet down the Big East standings. With Saturdays loss, the No. 15 Wildcats (21-8, 9-7) have lost seven of their last 12.
I think St. Johns is playing as well as anyone in the country right now, Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. Theyre well-coached. They play smart, tough, unselfish. I think they have a great feel for how they can win games right now, and thats one of the things were struggling with. Were not clicking.
At the beginning of the season, few would have predicted that St. Johns would be ahead of Villanova in the Big East pecking order. Even fewer would have guessed that after the Wildcats won 16 of their first 17 games and looked like one of the best teams in the nation, let alone the conference.
But in a loaded league where as many as 11 teams could make the NCAA tournament, Wright understands how quickly things can change.
I feel like were getting, believe it or not, a little bit better but not good enough for this league, the Villanova coach said. I dont think were getting worse. If we didnt play Syracuse, St. Johns, Pitt, then maybe it might show. But its not good enough right now in this league.
Against the red-hot Red Storm, Villanova looked overmatched at times.
Through the first four minutes, St. Johns was in the process of an even larger demolition than what took place next door at the Building Formerly Known as The Spectrum, jumping out to an 18-4 lead on the strength of four three-pointers.
Thanks in large part to the hot hand of reserve guard Dominic Cheek (11 points), the Wildcats clawed back into the game, trailing only 41-36 at the half. But Villanova never could take the lead, despite a few chances to do so after the break.
St. Johns, which pressed on defense and attacked on offense throughout the afternoon, continued to put the pressure on in the final couple of minutes to force timely Nova turnovers, gobble up a couple of key offensive rebounds off missed free throws, and run away with its first road win against a nationally ranked team since 2002.
The closest the 'Cats came was when they pulled within one at 65-64 with four minutes left on a traditional three-point play from Maalik Wayns, who got the start.
They kept playing, Wayns said of St. Johns. Theyve got a lot of senior leaders whove been through that. Theyve lost tough games and theyve won tough games. That wasnt anything new to them. They kept a great attitude and put up a good win.
Wayns finished with 19 points, while fellow guard Corey Stokes led the way for Nova with 20 points on 6-for-10 shooting from three-point range.
But that was nothing compared to St. Johns guard Dwight Hardy, who was absolutely sensational for the Red Storm. Hardy finished with 34 points, which included a crucial, off-balance jumper that gave his team a 70-64 lead with 2:20 remaining.
Hardy, whos averaging a team-best 17.3 points per game, shot 9-for-16 from the floor, 5-for-9 from three-point range and 11-for-13 from the foul line.
We tried to trap him, we tried to deny him, we went a little zone, Wright said. Hes just awesome. Hes playing great. And whats really interesting about him is he doesnt turn the ball over. Hes got the ball all the time at the end of the shot clock and he ends the game with one turnover. Hes awesome.
Hes a killer, added Stokes. Coach Wright always tells me, (Corey) Fisher, Maalik, and Cheek to be a killer. Hes a killer.
While the Red Storms leading scorer had a game to remember, Villanovas leading scorer, Corey Fisher, had one hed like to forget. The Cats senior guard mustered just two points, shooting a dreadful 1-for-10 from the field and 0-for-8 from three-point range.
To his credit, Fisher had seven assists to go with one turnover, but his poor shooting performance comes on the heels of a 3-for-16 night against Syracuse on Monday. When asked what was wrong with his star guard, Wright repeated the phrase I dont know three times. But he hopes the shooting slump will end.
The best thing we can do is tell him to keep shooting, Wright said. We have confidence in him. Were going to ride him.
Fisher and Villanova will get a chance for redemption in just two days as the Wildcats take on No. 9 Notre Dame in a Big Monday battle in South Bend. Villanova then has another road game against a Top 10 team next Saturday vs. No. 4 Pitt before the Big East tournament begins.
In other words, things wont get any easier for the slumping 'Cats.
The good thing about the Big East is you get a chance to play Big East teams, Wright said. I would like us to be playing better right now obviously. But I do see a little improvement. I would like to see even more in our next two games, win or lose.
E-mail Dave Zeitlin at email@example.com