PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Who needs The Garden?
St. John’s showed that, yes, its season-long knack for knocking off Top 25 teams can work outside of Madison Square Garden.
Dwight Hardy scored a career-high 34 points and No. 23 St. John’s proved it doesn’t need to play at the program’s second home to beat a ranked team with an 81-68 win over No. 15 Villanova on Saturday.
“Our players are starting to learn how to have a road warrior mentality,” coach Steve Lavin said.
What a rush it’s been for the Red Storm (19-9, 11-5 Big East), who won their sixth straight game and beat their first Top 25 team away from the Garden.
Led by Hardy and his Big East player of the year credentials, the Red Storm have knocked off six ranked opponents this season and all but secured themselves a berth in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002.
Villanova adds its name to list of marquee opponents that have lost to St. John’s, an elite group that already included Georgetown, Notre Dame, Duke, Connecticut and Pittsburgh.
“We beat six teams, but we ain’t done yet,” Hardy said.
St. John’s raced to a 14-point lead in the opening minutes, then held on down the stretch to hold off the struggling Wildcats (21-8, 9-7).
Hardy, who has thrust himself past UConn’s Kemba Walker into contention for top player honors in the conference, buried 3s, was nearly flawless from the free-throw line, and made tough shots from all angles.
“I really believe it’s a runaway for Big East player of the year and moving into the discussion of an All-American,” Lavin said.
D.J. Kennedy had 12 points and 14 rebounds for St. John’s, in third place in the Big East.
While the Red Storm have become the talk of the town — make that, the Big Apple — the Wildcats are limping toward the Big East tournament.
They have lost two straight and four of six. Seven of their eight losses have come since Jan. 17. It gets worse. They end the season with games at No. 9 Notre Dame and No. 4 Pittsburgh and there’s a chance they won’t get a Big East tournament bye.
“I feel like we’re getting a little bit better, but not good enough for this league,” coach Jay Wright said. “I don’t think we’re getting worse.”
Hard to know that from looking at the stat sheet. Guard Corey Fisher, their leading scorer at 16.0 points per game, shot 1 of 10 for two points. The 3-point shooting was a woeful 4 for 14 in the second half. The Wildcats had 12 turnovers.
Ugly numbers for a team in flux.
“We don’t ever lose our confidence,” Villanova guard Corey Stokes said.
Hardy was too much for a usually stout Villanova team to handle. The Wildcats tried to trap him, deny him, double-team him. Nothing worked. He matched his season high with five 3s early in the second half for a 47-38 lead. He buried an off-kilter runner for a 55-47 lead
When the Wildcats chipped at the lead, no problem. Hardy drew a foul on a 3-point attempt and made all three from the line.
Hardy had the Red Storm in control until Villanova finally got its game together. Stokes hit three big 3s and Maalik Wayns converted a driving three-point play that pulled the Wildcats within 65-64 with 4 minutes left.
The Wildcats had the crowd and momentum on their side.
The Red Storm had Hardy.
He made two free throws, hit a 15-footer and suddenly the Red Storm were back off and running. They closed the game on a 16-4 run — the bulk of the points came on free throws — to storm off victorious again.
Hardy made 5 of 9 3s and 11 of 13 free throws in 37 minutes.
“When I don’t hesitate on the court, I can be a very dangerous player,” Hardy said. “I’m in a bit of a groove right now and I want to keep it going.”
Paris Horne added 12 points. The Red Storm came in averaging 4.1 3s per game, then stunned the Wildcats with a 10-for-22 effort behind the arc.
The Wildcats simply have no offensive rhythm. Stokes scored 20 points and Wayns had 19 but the rest of the offense wasn’t working. The Red Storm had better ball movement, did all the little things, and won the battle of the boards.
St. John’s has hit its stride at the right time and jumped Villanova from the opening tip. It was 18-4 before most of the crowd had settled into their seats. The Red Storm hit eight 3s on the way to a 41-36 halftime lead.
The milestones keep coming for the Red Storm: They have won eight of nine overall, have won seven straight Big East games for first time since 1999-2000, and have five conference road wins.
“We proved tonight we can beat a good team on the road,” Hardy said. “We came out with the same intensity we had at MSG.”
And the same result.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)