West Virginia (13-1, 3-0 Big East) limited the Red Storm to their second-lowest total this season while scoring more than 16 points over St. John's season defensive average. That continued a surprising early season run spurred mostly by a defense that ranks second nationally in points allowed per game. The Mountaineers have won eight in a row and 13 of their first 14 games. It is the school's best start in 24 years, when the 1981-82 team started 25-1 and rose as high as sixth in the rankings.
"I'm excited," said Nichols, who made eight of 10 shots, including four of five from behind the arc. "I love it. Being West Virginia, we are always considered underdogs."
WVU, an 11-year member of the Big East, has already beaten three conference teams picked above it in the preseason media poll and has trailed for just 2:24 in 120 minutes of Big East play thus far.
"It's the way we have been playing the 1-3-1 zone and even our man," said forward Frank Young, who added 12 points. "Even though teams are bigger, we have been doing a good job of keeping them from getting second shots. That's what really hurt us last year."
West Virginia outrebounded an opponent for just the fourth time this year and led by double digits for the final 14 minutes of the game against St. John's after nearly blowing a 22-point lead versus Villanova one game earlier. It used 12-0 run midway through the second half to balloon a seven-point edge into a 49-30 lead with 12 minutes left. It continued to add onto the lead throughout the rest of the game, its biggest advantage reaching 28, on a dunk by Jamie Smalligan with 30 seconds left.
Now the Mountaineers must go on the road for the first time in league play, traveling to No. 17 Notre Dame on Tuesday. The Irish lost 66-48 at Georgetown on Saturday. WVU plays six of its next eight away from home.
"It's a concern for every coach this time of year," said WVU coach John Beilein, who advanced to 6-0 all-time against St. John's. "I'm not downgrading my team, but if we would have started out at Connecticut and at Villanova, we wouldn't be all la-la right now. Playing on the road is really hard, especially for a young group."
Nichols reached his career high with consecutive baskets at the six-minute mark. He hit a 3-pointer, then scored on a lay-up one possession later for his 20th point. That gave the Mountaineers a 61-38 lead with 5:12 remaining. St. John's never got closer than 21 points afterward and was outrebounded by 10 against a team that had outrebounded just four foes this year. West Virginia showcased some physicality late, twice dunking the ball and getting a block from Joe Alexander, who stripped an offensive player and fed Nichols on the fast break for his final hoop.
"We may play small, but we are a tough team," Young said. "We are not going to back down from anybody. We knew coming in they would be physical. We were prepared for that, and did a good job matching them on the boards and really boxing out. We competed for a full 40 minutes."
Alexander added 10 points and seven assists for West Virginia. He also had five rebounds. WVU assisted on 21 of 29 baskets in a balanced effort that had 10 players with rebounds.
"We really don't care who leads in scoring as long as we get the win," Nichols said. "Anybody on our team can step up on any night. Those are our type of players. We'll like being on the road. We'll have our backs to the wall."
Lamont Hamilton led the Red Storm with 15 points. No other player reached double figures, while WVU had nine players score at least three points. Guard Daryll Hill, who originally committed to WVU, had scored 74 points in his last three games against the Mountaineers. He was held to five. St. John's (10-5, 1-1) had won eight of nine. It lost to a ranked team for the second time in as many games this season.
The Mountaineers are holding foes to an average of less than 50 points per game and forcing an average of 20 turnovers. They have beaten St. John's six consecutive times, with half of those games decided by no fewer than five points. WVU now leads the all-time series 16-15. St. John's head coach Norm Roberts fell to 0-4 against West Virginia in his career.
"A lot of our turnovers against their 1-3-1 led to transition points," Roberts said. "When you do that, you are going to be in trouble. They got a lot of lay-ups in the second half off backcuts or in transition. It was easy points. We can defend better than we did today. We were fine in the first half, but not very good in the second. The Big East is an unbelievable conference. You take one game and you have to move on to the next. You can't worry about what happened."
West Virginia won't. Its schedule lays out with contests at Notre Dame and Marquette, then a home game against Cincinnati before the Capital Classic against Marshall. WVU then plays two more on the road, both in New Jersey against Rutgers and Seton Hall, respectively. Huge home match-ups with No. 1 UCLA, which lost to Oregon, and rival Pitt.
"We need this," Beilein said. "We have only had one true road game at Duquesne. This is Notre Dame. We'll do all the normal stuff, the loud music and you can't talk. We will make it a tough environment. We will try to simulate what it will be like."