NEW YORK — Donte DiVincenzo hit six 3-pointers and scored 25 points to help No. 1 Villanova silence a rowdy New York crowd and hold off upset-minded St. John’s 78-71 on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden.
Shammorie Ponds came close to leading the Red Storm (10-8, 0-6 Big East) to their first win over a No. 1 team in 33 years. Ponds scored a career-high 37 points in front of 17,123 fans at the Garden.
Ponds punished his body as he crashed the lane for tough buckets — going up-and-under and seemingly straight through defenders — over the final 10 minutes that cut it to 69-65 with 1:18 left. He sank a rare jumper (all his field goals were 2-pointers) that pulled St. John’s within 71-67, and suddenly the chants of “Let’s Go Nova!” were drowned out by cheers for the Red Storm.
The Wildcats (16-1, 4-1) were flawless from the free-throw line over the final minute to avoid the startling upset.
Ponds, a 6-foot-1 guard who scored 31 points against Missouri in November, took just about every shot for the Red Storm down the stretch.
Once called the Michael Jordan of Delaware by coach Jay Wright, DiVincenzo simply wouldn’t let the Red Storm get too close. Each time St. John’s seemed set to start a game-changing run over the final 7 minutes, DiVincenzo buried 3s, hitting three that gave the Wildcats leads of nine, 10 and 11.
Mikal Bridges had 15 points and 11 rebounds for Villanova. The Wildcats went 13-for-30 on 3-point range.
Ponds was a one-man band for St. John’s. No other player scored in double figures and his 15 baskets were two more than the rest of the team.
Jalen Brunson and Bridges hit 3s early in the second half to start to build a cushion and DiVincenzo added another 3 for a 10-point lead. That completed a torrid stretch of eight 3s on Villanova’s last eight attempts.
St. John’s hit one 3 the entire game — one! — and that snuffed any chance at a win. St. John’s hung around for most of the first half and put checks in the boxes of things needed to do to beat Villanova.
Tariq Owens had a big block on Bridges under the basket that brought a packed MSG crowd to its feet. Bryan Trimble Jr. buried a 3 for a 20-17 lead and Brunson, one of the top players in the nation, fumbled the ball on the next possession. The Wildcats, who have seemingly fixed the defensive troubles that plagued them the last month, lost their 3-point stroke, missing 8 of their first 10 attempts.
The Wildcats pulled themselves together and showed why they’re again the elite team in the Big East. DiVincenzo hit two 3s and scored eight straight points to give them the lead for good and Omari Spellman hit a 3 to send Villanova into halftime with a 34-27 lead.
St. John’s: Yes, the Red Storm were actually 10-2 on Dec. 20 and off to one of their best starts in two decades before this tailspin started. The Red Storm lost all three games on this homestand and there’s little sign there will be an immediate turnaround. St. John’s hasn’t defeated a No. 1 team since Chris Mullin was in uniform, not the coach. St. John’s beat No. 1 Georgetown 66-65 on Jan. 26, 1985.
Villanova: The Wildcats won their 13th straight game in the series. Villanova, the 2016 national champions, is rolling toward its fifth straight Big East regular season championship.
Villanova puts its No. 1 ranking on the line Wednesday at Georgetown.
The Red Storm play another Top 25 team when they visit No. 10 Xavier on Wednesday.