PHILADELPHIA (AP) - The best team in basketball is clearly the Wildcats.
Not so fast. Villanova has clearly made a dominant case as a bona fide national championship contender.
“I think we’re playing as well as anybody in the country,” coach Jay Wright said. “I think we can beat anybody in the country.”
Daniel Ochefu had 21 points and nine rebounds, JayVaughn Pinkston scored 18 points and No. 4 Villanova rolled to its 12th straight victory, 105-68 over St. John’s on Saturday.
The Wildcats (29-2, 16-2 Big East) now have the most regular-season wins in team history and head to New York as the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament. The Wildcats have won 12 straight Big East games for the first time in program history.
Villanova is rolling, its aim on a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats just might earn a top spot with the way they’re playing. They shook off a slow start and dominated the Red Storm (21-10, 10-8) in the second half. Villanova put the game away with a 23-4 run and outscored St. John’s 55-22 in the half.
The Wildcats hoisted the Big East trophy at midcourt during a postgame celebration and wore championship T-shirts as a season highlight reel played above them. They expect to add a few more clips over the next month.
“They’re playing the best basketball of any team in the country,” St. John’s coach Steve Lavin said.
The Wildcats had four starters and five players score in double figures, the kind of balance and depth that has them feeling like they could make their first Final Four since 2009. Dylan Ennis scored 17 points, Darrun Hilliard had 14 and Josh Hart hit three 3s and scored 13.
But recent seasons in March have not been kind under Wright. The Wildcats have won just two NCAA Tournament games since 2009 and have not advanced out of the first weekend.
They lost their Big East tournament opener against Seton Hall last season.
“It wasn’t losing to Seton Hall that had us concerned going into the (NCAA) tournament, it was how we played,” Wright said.
They played great against St. John’s and led by as many as 37 points.
Pinkston made 7 of 9 shots, even though he didn’t take his first shot until there was 3:50 left in the first half. His three-point play put the Wildcats up 41-38 and wiped out a rough start that had them down 11.
The Wildcats took off from there, making 6 of 19 3-point attempts to lead 50-46 at halftime. Ryan Arcidiacono and Ennis hit consecutive 3s during the early second-half spurt and Ochefu converted a three-point play for a 74-60 lead and put the Wildcats firmly in control. Ochefu made 8 of 9 shots.
St. John’s shot only 35 percent in the second half and missed 7 of 8 3-pointers.
“We don’t try and focus on offense,” Pinkston said. “We try and focus on defense and get stops.”
Kris Jenkins nailed a 3 with 3:40 left to help Villanova hit an even 100 points for the first time this season. Wright emptied the bench and the starters walked off to a standing ovation from a packed Wells Fargo Center.
Hard to believe at that point that the Red Storm came out with a hot hand and seemed positioned for an upset. D’Angelo Harrison and Phil Greene IV hit 3s and St. John’s made its first six shots for an 18-7 lead.
Rysheed Jordan led St. John’s with 21 points.
It’s going to take more than an early run to put away the Wildcats next week - and beyond. Can any team beat them at MSG?
“I’m not sure,” Greene said.
St. John’s: St. John’s snapped a four-game winning streak. … The Red Storm still finished the season with the most wins under Lavin. The Red Storm’s 21 wins matched the most since 1999-2000.
Villanova: Villanova wore its throwback 1985 national championship season uniforms and honored the 1995 Big East tournament champs. The ‘95 team still represents Villanova’s only Big East tourney title. … The Wildcats had three turnovers and none in the second half.
St. John’s played without center Chris Obekpa (ankle) and guard Jamal Branch (groin). The fifth-seeded Red Storm hope to have both when they play Providence on Thursday in a Big East quarterfinal.
The Big East tournament for both teams.
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