Strong defense makes St. John's a tough opponent, even if the Red Storm don't get a win to show for it.
Darrun Hilliard scored 18 points, Ryan Arcidiacono had 12 and No. 9 Villanova beat St. John's 57-54 on Saturday.
It was the second straight win for Villanova (24-3, 12-2 Big East) since its second loss of the season to No. 11 Creighton.
"That was old-school, Big East basketball," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "Ugly. Great defense. Physical. You had to be physically and mentally tough to play that game. It was the Big East. I'm glad to see our conference at that level. It was just the kind of game in the '80s when I was an assistant here."
D'Angelo Harrison had 15 points for St. John's (18-10, 8-7), Rysheed Jordan scored 13 and JaKarr Sampson had 12 points and 10 rebounds as the Red Storm's six-game winning streak ended.
"It was a Big East battle right to the end," Red Storm coach Steve Lavin said. "We punched and counter-punched right until the end in a hostile environment."
Though moral victories don't show up in the standings, games like this increase St. John's NCAA tournament chances.
"If you know basketball, our team is coming together," Lavin said. "Now it's up to us how we play the last two weeks."
Wright thinks the Red Storm should get an invitation to the field of 68.
"I think we can get five teams in on a year when our conference is down," Wright said. "Rivalries are getting interesting. I'm getting excited about this league."
Arcidiacono banked a 3-pointer from the top of the circle to give Villanova a 53-50 lead with 3:43 left. After the Red Storm missed a shot, JayVaughn Pinkston grabbed two key offensive rebounds for the Wildcats and Hilliard made a free throw.
St. John's went 3:36 without a point before Sampson's free throw with 1:14 remaining. Arcidiacono then threw away the inbound pass following a timeout, and Harrison made a driving layup to cut it to 54-53. Daniel Ochefu made one of two free throws to give Villanova a 2-point lead with 34 seconds left.
With a chance to tie or give the Red Storm a lead, Phil Greene IV was called for traveling with 14 seconds to go. Arcidiacono's free throw made it 56-53. But the Red Storm couldn't get a 3-point shot off and Harrison was fouled going for a layup with 1.5 seconds left. He made the first free throw and purposely missed the second, but a lane violation gave the ball to Villanova.
"We were trying to get a 3, but just couldn't do it," Harrison said.
Josh Hart made one free throw and the Red Storm missed a desperation 3-point shot at the buzzer.
"It's frustrating," Sampson said. "We knew it was a big game. We just have to look forward to the next one."
St. John's came in allowing the second-fewest points in the nation (68.0). They also had the top field goal percentage defense and 3-point percentage defense. It showed as the Red Storm forced 15 turnovers and held the Wildcats 23 points below their average (80.7). The Wildcats tied for the fewest points they have scored in a win this season.
James Bell hit a 3-pointer to give Villanova its biggest lead, 44-38, in the second half. But the Red Storm answered with a 9-3 run capped by Sir'Dominic Pointer's driving layup that tied it at 47.
After both teams traded misses and turnovers for 2 minutes, Bell drained another 3 for a 50-47 with 5:52 left.
Villanova, which beat St. John's 74-67 at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 11, jumped to an 8-0 lead behind two 3s by Hilliard. The Red Storm scored the next nine points and the teams played a tight, defensive first half that ended with Villanova leading 28-27.