Wildcats Escape St. John’s, 66-65, In Big East Quarterfinals


Courtesy of Victoria Margenat/Villanovan Photography

Caleb Daniels (above) sparked the Wildcat offense, scoring 19 points in the win.

Colin Beazley, Co-Editor-in-Chief

NEW YORK 一 With 15:38 remaining, St. John’s looked ready to end Villanova’s Big East Tournament run before it could even begin. Villanova head coach Jay Wright described the Red Storm’s play style as “40 minutes of hell” earlier this season, and in the lead up to the game and for the first 25 minutes, it couldn’t have been much worse for the Wildcats.

Graduate forward Jermaine Samuels had been ruled out of the starting lineup with back spasms, but was playing, albeit in obvious pain.

Redshirt sophomore forward Eric Dixon had spent the day throwing up, not of nerves from playing in the Big East Tournament, but from illness.

Red Storm star Julian Champagnie, the Big East’s leading scorer, had terrorized the ‘Cats, with 20 points in just over a half of play.

Villanova had made an uncharacteristic 10 turnovers, struggling to match the intensity of a St. John’s squad playing for their lives, and the Wildcats trailed, 44-27.

Then, 25 minutes of “hell” were wiped away in five minutes of heaven.

Justin Moore hit a three. Caleb Daniels made a layup off a St. John’s turnover, and Collin Gillespie was good from three on the ensuing possession. Off another turnover, Moore made a layup. St. John’s Esahia Nyiwe threatened to stem the Villanova momentum with a thunderous putback dunk, but Daniels quickly answered with another three. Villanova forced two more turnovers, which it turned into five points with a layup from Gillespie and a three point play from Brandon Slater. 

When the dust cleared, the Wildcats had completed an 18-2 run. The Red Storm lead, which had been 17, was trimmed to just one. For the final ten minutes of the game, the teams traded blows, but Slater got the final word by making two free throws with 2.8 seconds, the first to tie, the second to take a 66-65 lead. St. John’s was able to get a shot away on its final possession, but Shef Smith’s halfcourt heave was no good, advancing the Wildcats to the Big East Tournament semifinals and ending St. John’s NCAA Tournament dreams.

We practice situations like this every day,” senior guard Caleb Daniels said. “And to be honest, we have a love for each other. So we know we’re going to fight for each other — every possession, one possession at a time, one stop at a time. And we’re just going to gut it out each and every game.”

Daniels was the leading scorer for the Wildcats, with 19 points, making five of his nine three point attempts. Villanova struggled to find offense in the first half, but Daniels was able to score nine points in the period to keep the ‘Cats within striking distance.

“We just got out of sync a little bit,” Wright said of his team’s first half performance. “But you’ve got to give credit to St. John’s. They got in us, and we just didn’t execute well in the first half.”

The Wildcat run in the second half correlated with the benching of St. John’s guard Posh Alexander, who sat due to foul trouble. Alexander picked up his third foul of the game with the Red Storm up 14, and Alexander didn’t return until the lead was down to one.

“He’s a big part of what they do,” Wright said. “He’s a really unique player… He’s a big part of their team. I thought that was really big.”

Despite being held out of the starting lineup and questionable to play at all, graduate forward Jermaine Samuels logged 25 minutes, scoring seven key points in the final ten minutes of the game.

“He didn’t even come out for the start of the game,” Wright said. “He wasn’t on the bench at the beginning of the game. We were just ready to go without him. And then he just appeared on the bench… He didn’t look great early. He was a little shaky early, but he said, ‘I’m good, I’m good.’ I think by halftime I thought he looked normal. He was really good in the second half. Just one of those bizarre things.”

Despite Villanova’s historic run, the game was in doubt until the very end, when the nation’s best free throw shooting team was put to the test. Slater made the final two free throws and five on the night, and the Wildcats as a team shot 85% from the line on the night, improving the season’s 82.5% rate.

“We work on free throws every day in practice,” Slater said.” So when I stepped to the line, my teammates and coaches, they were telling me, we do this every single day. They gave me that confidence, and I was able to knock it down.”

Champagnie led all scorers with 23 points in the game, but his three point attempt on the Red Storm’s final possession of the game hit nothing but air.

“I think everybody can see our faces,” Champagnie said through tears postgame. “It’s rough. I feel like the guys, we gave it our all… I feel we played hard. And I wouldn’t change it for nothing.

The Wildcats advanced to the Big East Tournament semifinals for the first time since 2019, where they will face UConn at 9:00 on Friday night.  Getting past St. John’s was a critical step, but with four of the top five seeded teams remaining in the tournament, taking home the tournament crown will be difficult.

“That’s what’s great about this tournament this year,” Wright said. “You can see the intensity here. It’s on a whole other level. This conference is as good as it’s ever been this year.”