By Annie Ross

Phil Booth is a two-time NCAA title-winning vet on an otherwise young Villanova team, and his savvy paid off last night:

He hit a go-ahead 3-pointer late in the game and scored 23 points as the Cats rallied to beat No. 24 St. John’s 76-71 at the Finn.

Eric Paschall scored 25 points for the defending national champion Wildcats (12-4, 3-0 Big East), who have suffered four losses in non-conference play.

The upstart Red Storm are off to their best start since 1985-86, and they led by 13 in the first half and by 11 early in the second before a 3-point-happy offense went cold and rushed shot selection gave the Wildcats time needed to storm back and win.

Booth has saved his best for the second half this season and delivered again in the clutch. He hit the bucket that pulled the Wildcats within one and connected on a 3 with 2:33 to go for a 68-67 lead they would not relinquish.

Shamorie Ponds had 23 points for St. John’s (14-2, 2-2), the last on two free throws with 59 seconds left that got the Red Storm within 72-69. The Wildcats, who dropped two home games early to fall out of the Top 25, sealed their fourth straight victory at the free-throw line.

Booth hit six of Villanova’s 12 3-pointers.

The Wildcats trailed by 11 when they erupted on a 12-0 run to take their first lead of the game. The Wildcats got contributions from young — freshman Saddiq Bey hit a 3 and a layup that started the spurt — and old — Booth buried a 3 and scored on a driving layup for a 51-50 lead.

Perhaps the Red Storm of coach Chris Mullin’s first three seasons would have wilted on the road much earlier after squandering a double-digit lead. Led by Ponds, this year’s team has the confidence and talent to shake off the slumps and attack. Ponds converted a four-point play to push the lead to eight and LJ Figueroa sank a 3 that kept SJU’s lead at four.

It wouldn’t last.

The Red Storm came in rolling after a soft non-conference schedule that sparked them to their best start since the 1980s. St. Johns’ used wins over then-No. 16 Marquette and Georgetown to hit the AP Top 25 this week for the first time in more than four years.

Mullin’s fourth season has been his best and has the program thinking big: SJU athletic director Mike Cragg said this week he wants all Big East home games played at Madison Square Garden.

The Red Storm felt at home at the refurbished Pavilion and got the better of the Wildcats early in a 3-point shootout. Ponds hit one to help St. John’s race out to a 20-7 lead. Ponds hit another 3 that stunted a Villanova run and St. John’s made nine in the half for a 39-34 lead. With each team firing 3s (a combined 38 attempts in the half), there only five total free throws before the break.