Wednesday, January 24, 2024

St. John's, Led By "Locked in" Soriano, Stuns Villanova


Joel Soriano slamming one home in the early stages of the second half. Photo by Jason Schott.

The St. John's Red Storm faced their first gut check moment of the season, as they entered Wednesday night's game against the Villanova Wildcats at Madison Square Garden on a three-game losing streak. 

Their last win came against Villanova on the road on January 6, which meant this also was the first time Rick Pitino's squad would face an oppponent twice this season.

They passed the test with flying colors, as they dominated on the defensive end, to the tune of holding Villanova to 37.5 percent shooting, on their way to a 70-50 win.  improved to 5-4 in the Big East, 13-7 overall, while Villanova fell to 4-4 (11-8).

There were many superlatives to this win for St. John's, starting with this being their first season sweep of Villanova since the 1992-93 campaign. It is also the largest victory over the Wildcats since January 25, 1998, when the Red Storm won 82-59 at The Garden.

St. John's took this game over midway through the first half when they went on a 15-3 run capped by a Joel Soriano jumper, after Chris Ledlum snagged an offensive rebound, that gave them a 28-13 lead at the 6:42 mark. 

St. John's shot 46.7 percent (14-for-30) in the first half, while holding Villanova to just eight baskets in 22 attempts (36.4 percent) to take a 32-22 lead into the break.

In the second half, as one would expect from Villanova, even with Kyle Neptune at the helm instead of Jay Wright, they made a run.

The Wildcats went on a 7-2 spark capped by a Hakim Hart layup on a fast break that cut the Red Storm's lead to 40-35 with 12:46 remaining.

Then, as if to remind everyone this is a new year and Rick Pitino runs St. John's, they took over. 

The Red Storm went on an astonishing 26-10 run capped by a pair of Daniss Jenkins free throws with 1:48 left that made it 66-45.

Soriano slammed one home on their next possession with 1:12 left, and he would be lifted at the next stoppage in play.

When Soriano - who poured in 21 points on a near-perfect 8-for-9 from the field, and nine rebounds - exited the court, he was greeted by a standing ovation from the crowd of 12,859 and his teammates, and received a big hug from Pitino.

Joel Soriano and Rick Pitino embrace. Photo by Jason Schott.

"Well, I'm real proud of our team, needless to say," Pitino said afterwards. "I think our pressure was about as good as could be. Both of these guys played a tremendous game," referring to Soriano and Jordan Dingle, who were to his left on the dais. Dingle had 12 points on 6-13 from the field, with four rebounds and four assists off the bench. 

"Jordan doesn't realize it because he isn't the second leading scorer in the country, but he is a much better basketball player than he has ever been because he is now a good defensive player, he is now a passer. We know he can score, but he had four assists, four rebounds, one turnover. He is really improving, really coming on, great team guy. And [Soriano] tonight came to play. He knew how important this game was for us and he was magnificent...

"You know, he wanted the ball inside. Joel was really locked in defensively. He switched a lot and didn't give up; he played a lot of guards tonight and didn't give up. Joel really, he's becoming a really good defensive player as well. He challenged every shot inside. I thought he was very cerebral, besides being very good. He's very upbeat, very positive, he knew how much we needed this game.

"I mean, we're not gonna bullshit you guys - this was a big game for us. They needed it, we needed it. We played this game as if everything was on the line for the season. We didn't want to go into Xavier (next Wednesday, January 31) with a four-game losing streak. We had to get this game, and they came through. They came through in a big way."

Soriano said of the win, "To be honest, every game there's a lot on it. This game we knew was very important. Playing a great team, a college that has a lot of fans that come into this building, we knew they were going to bring a lot of energy. They came off I think losing three of their last four. We just lost three in a row. We knew today was going to be a hard-fought game. I am proud of our guys for bringing it in the second half and continuing to play defense. We just have to keep building off that into the next game."

Dingle said of the season sweep of Villanova, "I think it's a representation of how hard we have been working this year. It's a sign of a great change. We couldn't do it without our great fans. I haven't played in an environment like this ever in my life. They really did a great job packing The Garden, especially at 8:30 p.m. on a worknight. That means the world to me, my teammates and the coaching staff. The energy in here was amazing and it is every game."

In the second half, St. John's put up the same exact overall shooting numbers - 14-for-30, or 46.7 percent - as they did in the opening frame, with the only difference behind the arc, as they were 4-11 in the first half and 1-8 in the second.

Villanova did slightly better in the second half, as they shot 38.5 percent (10-26). For the game, the Wildcats shot 37.5 percent, or 18-48, including 4-25, or 16 percent, on three-pointers.

"We're just very excited with the way we played tonight, the way 42-to-23 on the backboard (referring to their rebound advantage), the way these two guys played. We're very excited about the win," Pitino said. "I try to tell them 'don't get too down, don't get too up,' but I told them this is the game tonight. This is the game, make no mistake about it. I said, this is the game, if you six seniors want to play in the Tournament, you must get this game. This is the game, and they responded in a big way."

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