‘Cats hold off Storm’s attack to win 85-74

Leslie Combs

Following a slow first half, Villanova came out strong offensively in the second and managed to squelch a late run by St. John’s to overpower the Red Storm 85-74 this afternoon in the Pavilion. The Wildcat victory brings the young squad’s Big East record to 2-1 and 10-5 overall, while St. John’s further established itself in the conference cellar going 0-4 in the Big East and 4-10 overall.

‘Nova relied on its strong defensive effort in the first, while the strength and athleticism of St. John’s hindered the ‘Cats from finding an early offensive rhythm.

“St. John’s played very aggressively and physically,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. “They get after you, and they turn us over. We are kind of like high risk, high reward when it comes to passing the basketball. I think we could have taken care of it better and it might not have been as close, but I give them credit, they get in you and really disrupt you offensively and if you are not strong with the ball you lose it.”

Although the Storm took an early lead, ‘Nova freshman Mike Nardi’s dominance at the point, not only passing inside, but taking shots of his own helped ‘Nova to enter the half on top 31-29.

The ‘Cats came back out and broke through the Storm’s defensive play in the second and shot 60 percent from the field, connecting on six from behind the arch, compared to their 42.9 percent from the field in the first. After going up by 13 with a little over six minutes left in the game, the ‘Cats saw their lead dwindle to four in just two minutes after a 9-1 Storm run. ‘Nova did not succumb to the pressure and fought back, holding St. John’s to just four points in the final minutes of play.

Nardi ended the night with 23 points and 8 assists, his second straight game scoring 20-plus points.

“I am surprised we are going to have to depend on his scoring so much,” Wright said. “I hoped he didn’t have to score as much, but he can.”

Another crucial element to ‘Nova’s victory came from its young starting five all scoring in double digits. Sophomore Allan Ray continued to find the net, scoring 21, while his classmates Curtis Sumpter and Randy Foye added 15 and 13 repsectively. Sophomore Jason Fraser also netted 10 points, going 8-10 from the charity stripe in just his fifth game this season. Plagued with injuries since coming to the Main Line in 2002, the last 16 days marked the first time the sophomore has played in five games and while also participating in practice since January 2003. His insertion into the starting line-up has given the ‘Cats needed interior presence. In today’s win Fraser grabbed 12 rebounds, leaving him averaging 11 rebounds in the past five games.

“I am glad to just to get out there and finally get a chance to learn the game and have more experience,” Fraser said. “With each practice and each game I fell more and more comfortable and the chemistry is getting better with the team.”

On top of securing another conference win, Wright was pleased in the ability of his squad to hold off the late-game attack the Storm threw at the ‘Cats this afternoon. Just over a week ago, ‘Nova gave up its lead to Notre Dame in the final minutes of play, losing 82-78 at the Wachovia Center. However at Boston College Jan. 14, the ‘Cats held off the Eagle’s final attack to earn their first conference victory 92-89. Following today’s similar resoluteness, ‘Nova appears to be coming together; merging into a team that is confident not only with each other but also in their ability to get the job done.

“We just have to keep doing that [putting the game away],” Wright said. “There is nothing better for these guys than to go through it together, experience it, and that is going to give them the confidence to do it each time.”

On the other side of the ball, St. John’s continues to struggle after the midseason firing of head coach Mike Jarvis. Associate head coach Kevin Clark now holds the Storm’s reigns, but has been unable to bring the squad together. In its loss to the ‘Cats Daryll Hill led St. John’s with 20, while Kyle Cuffe knocked in 17 and Grady Reynolds added 16.

The ‘Cats continue their conference play when they travel to Providence to take on the Friars Jan. 21 at 7:30 p.m.