VILLANOVA, Pa. -- When St. John's and Villanova met Tuesday night at Finneran Pavilion, one team was ranked and one team was not.
It was quite the reversal of roles.
St. John's entered as the No. 24 team in the nation while defending NCAA champion Villanova is unranked. But on this night, the Red Storm learned that the Big East still runs through the Wildcats.
"No question, absolutely," St. John's coach Chris Mullin said after his team blew a late lead and fell 76-71 before a sold-out crowd. "The way they play, the way they win, they just have a championship pedigree. No question, that's the team to beat in the league."
Instead of improving to 15-1 to start the season, St. John's is now 14-2. After entering the AP Poll on Monday, the Johnnies will likely fall out of the poll come next week.
After beating then-No. 16 Marquette by 20 points at Carnesecca Arena and coming from behind to win at Georgetown in overtime on Saturday, St. John's missed a golden opportunity to build on their resume because their offense failed them late.
"I mean, they're national champions," Marvin Clark II said of Villanova. "They're the last Big East team to win a national championship so always pay our respects to them. In that regard they're still the team to beat, but regardless we never back down from anybody. I tip my hat off to Villanova and coach [Jay] Wright."
St. John's led 67-62 with 4:08 remaining but got outscored 14-4 as they went cold down the stretch. Villanova went on a 10-0 run and led 72-67 after two Jermaine Samuels free throws with 1:04 left. Clark drained a long 2-pointer from the top of the arc to cut the lead to 74-71 with 39.2 seconds left, but St. John's got no closer.
"Kind of sloppy," said junior guard Shamorie Ponds, the reigning Big East and NCAA Player of the week. "I feel like they took the lead, we were supposed to gain the lead right back. I feel like it shouldn't have been a close game to begin with, in my opinion."
The second half was a far cry from the first when St. John's raced out to a 17-5 lead by making five quick 3-pointers and never trailed. The Johnnies shot 9-of-21 from deep before the break, with four different players making shots from deep.
"Chris obviously with his NBA experience, is really good at running cuts to find the matchups they want," Wright said. "If you let them get into a rhythm, they're going to slice you, they're going to find your weakness, which they did. First play of the second half, slice, slip, layup. So we were trying to switch up defenses, try to keep them out of a rhythm. The first time we went zone, they hit threes but at least they weren't into a rhythm."
Sixteen NBA scouts were on hand to watch Ponds, currently projected as a second-round pick by ESPN.com. But after scoring 15 points in the first half, when St. John's led 39-34, Ponds managed just 10 in the second half and finished 8-of-18 from the field and 4-of-11 from deep.
"I thought he was a little non-aggressive," Mullin said of Ponds. "I thought he could've drove the ball, he opted to pull up and shoot the ball."
Despite the loss, Ponds knows he and his teammates will get another chance at Villanova on Feb. 17 at Madison Square Garden. St. John's still has to get past the Wildcats to take control of the Big East.
"The past is the past," Ponds said. "They past champions but this is anybody's league right now. It's up in the air for anybody."