PHILADELPHIA -- St. John’s is certainly one of the best 68 teams in the country, but it’ll have to do more to prove it.
The Red Storm could have practically punched their ticket to the NCAA tournament Saturday, but they came up just short against No. 9 Villanova, losing 57-54 in front of 17,124 at the Wells Fargo Center.
"I’m proud of our team’s ability in a hostile environment to continue punching and counterpunching for 40 minutes," St. John’s coach Steve Lavin said. "Disappointed that we weren’t able to come out with the win."
It was there for the taking despite St. John’s being without second-leading rebounder Orlando Sanchez, who missed the game after the birth of his daughter on Friday. The Red Storm were down one at intermission (28-27), never trailed by more than six in the second half and had the ball with 34 seconds remaining down 55-53.
"I came off the screen, and he was wide open," Harrison said. "He pitched the ball back up to me and they called travel. We can’t control that."
St. John’s had another opportunity to tie the game after Villanova’s Ryan Arcidiacono made just one of two free throws, making it 56-53. But with 3.2 seconds on the clock and inbounding underneath the Villanova basket, Marc-Antoine Bourgault threw a pass to Harrison in the paint.
"We were trying to get a 3-pointer, but they had good coverage for the 3," Harrison said, "so I cut to the basket to try to get an and-1, but I couldn’t."
Harrison was fouled, sank the first free throw and missed the second on purpose, but Rysheed Jordan was charged with a lane violation. Villanova’s Josh Hart made one of two free throws with 1.5 ticks left, making it 57-54, and Jordan’s half-court heave was off the mark (and waved off by the referees anyway).
St. John’s shot just 19-for-59 in the game (32.2 percent) and just 1-for-10 in the final seven minutes, 59 seconds.
"We were getting stops. We were playing great defense," forward JaKarr Sampson said. "We just couldn’t make a shot. Sometimes, that happens."
Sampson had a double-double, with 12 points and 10 rebounds. Harrison scored a team-high 15 points but shot just 4-for-15 from the field. Jordan, playing his first college game in his hometown, added 13 points but shot just 6-for-15 and committed an uncharacteristic five turnovers.
"Rysheed was emblematic of our entire team," Lavin said. "We competed and gave ourselves an opportunity to win, but when you’re on the road in a tough environment, you have a razor-thin margin for error."
Center Chris Obekpa returned to the lineup ahead of schedule, just five days after suffering a sprain and bone bruise in his right ankle. Obekpa started, played 24 minutes and made his presence felt at the defensive end but finished with modest numbers -- one point, two rebounds and two blocked shots.
"He’s not 100 percent," Lavin said. "But with some more treatment and with some more rest, I think we can get Chris back close to 100 percent. And then, of course, Orlando will be back when his wife and child go home from the hospital, so we expect him to be back in the fold by tomorrow."
St. John’s (18-10, 8-7 Big East) had won six games in a row and nine of 10 -- and a three-point loss to Villanova (24-3, 12-2), on the road, is far from embarrassing.
But it is a missed opportunity. The Red Storm are now just 1-5 against ranked opponents and won’t face another one the rest of the regular season.
Their RPI ranking is pretty good (53 entering Saturday), and they entered ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi’s projected NCAA tournament bracket earlier this week. But they are surely back on the bubble after this loss.
"St. John’s is, without a doubt, a tournament team," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "Not because I say so. Not because of their record. They’re just good enough -- they’re gonna be good enough to win a lot of games."
But they better win at least two of their final three -- versus Xavier, DePaul and at Marquette -- and at least one game in the Big East tournament for good measure.
St. John’s has proven it can play with some of the best teams in the country, but it hasn’t proven it can beat them, with one exception.
The Red Storm belong in the Big Dance, but their fate is still to be determined.