But once they finally figured out a way to solve the Red Storm's trapping full-court pressure, the Wildcats turned the game around with a late 16-3 run that secured a 71-55 Big East Conference win in front of a sellout crowd of 6,500.
Yes, the Wildcats (16-10 overall, 7-7 conference) struggled again with turnovers, committing 22 - the fourth time in the last five games they have had 22 or more. But they shot 62.5 percent from the field in the second half and got terrific performances from Michael Bradley and Gary Buchanan.
The 6-foot-10 Bradley had game highs in four categories - 22 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 blocked shots - plus an altercation with the Red Storm's Donald Emanuel that resulted in a double technical foul.
Buchanan added 19 points and nine rebounds, and scored the first eight points of Villanova's decisive second-half run. However, he went 3 for 5 from the free-throw line, so his percentage dropped from .966 to .946. The single-season Division I record is .959.
The win enabled the Wildcats to continue to ride the overcrowded bubble that Big East teams occupy, and broke their home-court funk that included losses to Boston College, Providence, and Miami in the last four weeks.
"This is the first time since I've been here that we haven't played well at home," said Villanova coach Steve Lappas, who watched his team go 67-7 there from the start of the 1994-95 season to Jan. 2. "We finally played like us today. It's how we've played the last seven years in this building, and it's the first time I've seen it this year."
Before the Wildcats could put away the Red Storm (14-12, 8-6), they had to endure spurts of excellent, and dreadful, basketball.
Villanova connected on 10 of its first 14 shots and ran out to a 25-6 lead in the opening 13 minutes, then went the rest of the first half without a field goal. Using a 1-2-2 trap to disrupt Villanova on every trip upcourt, the Red Storm chopped the deficit to two points on four occasions in the second half.
Along the way, there was some tension. With 9 minutes, 26 seconds remaining, Bradley dunked to give the Cats a 50-43 lead, but Emanuel appeared to have a hold on his shirt when he came down. Bradley shook himself free by flailing his arms once, an act that seemed to offend Emanuel, who offered a push, but not a punch, or so the officials ruled in assessing each player a technical foul.
"He didn't hit me," said Bradley, who went 8 for 10 from the field. "I was going to dunk the ball and I felt him grab my jersey and give me a shove in the back. I was just trying to protect myself. I felt he pushed me in the back, and I wasn't going to stand there and let him shove me."
A layup by St. John's Anthony Glover made it 51-49, the last time the Red Storm were within two. But suddenly, Villanova's three-guard attack of Buchanan, Derrick Snowden (filling in for injured point guard Jermaine Medley) and Reggie Bryant was making better decisions against the press.
"They didn't start with the press, and I think Derrick was ready for it at the start," Lappas said. "The game settled into a nice flow and, all of a sudden, boom. That's what can happen to freshmen sometimes. In the second half, we settled down much better and attacked the press the way we need to."
Buchanan asserted himself offensively. He scored the next eight points on a runner in the lane and a pair of three-point baskets from each corner. That gave the Wildcats a 59-49 lead with 5:15 to play.
"The key was that they had switched to a zone, and their back [defender] wasn't coming out as far," Buchanan said. "That provided looks for me to get the shots."
After Glover sank two free throws to make it an eight-point game, Bradley dunked a Buchanan pass, then fed Brooks Sales for a dunk. Snowden sank a layup and two free throws for a 67-52 lead with 1:31 left, and the Wildcats were home free.
The numbers for the two freshmen point guards, Snowden and St. John's Omar Cook, the NCAA leader in assists, were identical: 10 points, three assists, six turnovers and two steals. Snowden guarded Cook in a box-and-one given significant use in the second half.
"We lived to fight another day," Lappas said. "That's the most important thing about today."
Joe Juliano's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.