‘Cats’ comeback too late to topple Storm’s attack

Leslie Combs

After snapping its three-game losing streak down south with an overtime road win over Big East foe Miami Saturday, Villanova’s inconsistent play led to a 50-52 loss against St John’s tonight in the First Union Center.

From the get-go the ‘Cats faced an uphill battle, falling behind early, somewhat reminiscent of their disastrous 92-75 loss to St. Joe’s last week. The shots were just not falling for ‘Nova, while junior Willie Shaw led the Storm from behind the arch. It was not until the 8:30 mark that the ‘Cats made their first field goal off freshman Allan Ray’s three to bring the score to 7-23.

Heading into the break, St. John’s was on top 17-35, 14 points coming off Shaw, while senior Gary Buchanan’s limited four points topped ‘Nova’s stats. The ‘Cats shot a dismal 18.2 percent from the field and reached a season low in first half points.

It was a role reversal in the second, with ‘Nova coming out strong to go on a 14-0 run early into the half and senior scoring specialist Marcus Hatten fouling out for the Storm with 9:07 remaining. Narrowing the gap to 42-44 with 2:48 left on the clock, the stage was set for a ‘Cats comeback. However, three turnovers and inconsistent shooting from the charity stripe took away ‘Nova’s chances at victory and Buchanan’s downtown buzzer shot gave the ‘Cats a bittersweet 50-52 loss.

“We had a chance to go after them a little bit without having their best player make so many plays for them on the floor,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. “We did a decent job defensively, but we could not convert on the offensive end. You have to given them credit, they turned the ball over, but the continued to play defense pretty well.”

Both Shaw and Buchanan led their squads, contributing 17 points each, while senior Ricky Wright topped the boards for the ‘Cats with seven rebounds.

The conference loss puts the Wildcats 13-9 overall and 6-3 in the Big East, while the Red Storm improves to a 11-9 total and is now 5-5 in conference play.

Wright acknowledged the ‘Cats inability to play consistent basketball as a severe flaw in the program this late in the season.

“It’s been our story for much of this year,” Wright said. “Just inconsistency. … As a coaching staff we have to find a way to get this done. I thought we were prepared but obviously we were not.”

The ‘Cats only broke the 50 point mark at the buzzer and finished the night 28 percent from the field and were just 65.4 percent at the line.

With seven games left in the season before the Big East Tournament the ‘Cats must begin to play a full 40 minutes of basketball and can not just show up in the second half as they did tonight. Currently, ‘Nova is 43 rd in the College RPI ratings and is classified by most as a likely bubble candidate come March.

Saturday’s 72-67 overtime victory at Miami on its fiercely defended court, proved that ‘Nova has what it takes to beat Big East opponents out in the thick. Buchanan’s 23 points and Wright’s ability to put up the ‘Cats final six points in the face of Darius Rice’s 26 points are both indications that ‘Nova’s senior leadership is more than capable of reeling in wins.

If Villanova is to remain in the bracket hunt, it must mentally come to each tip-off ready to play. After the loss to St. John’s Wright admitted the team is playing below its potential.

“This team should be playing better basketball,” he said. “We have to find a way to be hungry about every opportunity we have to play, and we just don’t do that. It is disappointing, but I think we can find it; we can find a way. As a staff we have tot keep working, and we have to get the leadership of our team to find a way to do that.”

Despite its loss to the Storm tonight, the ‘Cats remain on top of the Big East East division at 5-2 and will battle to remain the frontrunner this Saturday when they face division challenger UConn, 5-3 in the Big East East at noon in the First Union Center.

The Huskies enter the game on a two game win streak, after beating Syracuse 75-61 at home Feb. 10 and are 15-5 overall and 6-3 in the Big East. UConn is also riding a four-game win streak over the ‘Cats, having won eight out of the last 10 meetings, most recently beating ‘Nova 74-65 on the Huskies’ court Jan. 25.

A win Saturday will keep the ‘Cats on top of the Big East East standings, and the men know they will have to come prepared to play mentally and physically from the start.

“We just have to get up for Saturday,” Buchanan said. “It is a chance for first place in the Big East and if we play well Saturday we have a good chance to make a run. If our team, our players can’t get up for that game, then obviously we do not deserve it.”