This afternoon, Notre Dame's structure, pace, and solid shooting fell apart against the athletic, swarming defense of the Red Storm. The Johnnies won, 61-58, in their home finale - and knocked off their first ranked opponent of the season. St. John's improves to 13-16, 6-10 in the Big East. Notre Dame falls to 20-9 overall, 12-4 in the Big East; and Syracuse clinches the regular season title.
Yes, the present may show a losing record, and the season may have a downcast air about it. But moments like these are reminders that better days are coming for the young Red Storm, now winners of three straight.
Led by 22 points/ 9 rebounds from Moe Harkless, the Red Storm attacked the Irish's lack of quickness all game long. The Red Storm drew 21 free throw attempts (hitting 14) and got the shots they wanted to deep in the paint for stretches.
The Johnnies shot a crisp 58.3% inside the arc - in conference, they have averaged 46% shooting inside the arc. D`Angelo Harrison added 15 with 5 rebounds, and Amir Garrett added 11 points, 5 rebounds, and a crisp pass to find Harkless late to preserve a dwindling lead.
But the story wasn't about the scoring. Considering the turnovers and the 27% 3-point shooting, the defense - and just enough offense - won the day.
More, below the fold.
The Red Storm did an incredible job of disrupting the Irish attack - it was a clinic on how the Fighting Irish will be defeated in the Big East Tournament and in the NCAAs. The Irish had played perfectly organized ball all year - staying in defensive formation, defending quicker players with length and size.
Today, their best-schemed plans fell apart in Madison Square Garden, a place where the Fighting Irish haven't won in since 2004, despite the great offensive teams they have had.
A primer on defending the Irish. Common wisdom wouldn't have a team defend the slick-passing, solid-shooting Irish with a zone. But the Johnnies' athletic, extended zone covered up Jack Cooley, made the timing passes of the Irish difficult to complete, and goaded Notre Dame to take more than half of their shots from outside the arc in the first half.
It helps that the Irish had a historically bad shooting day against the length and hustle of the Red Storm, hitting 4 of 31 shots on the afternoon from outside the three point line. But Jack Cooley was held to 6 points in the first half, Jerian Grant to 0, and Eric Atkins to 2. And without Atkins/ Grant's ability to drive inside and kick the ball out to patiently waiting shooters, the Irish offense couldn't put up points... or maintain their pace. Disrupting them disrupted Notre Dame.
A key was the trapping defense by Phil Greene, Harkless (who had 3 of the team's 5 steals) and the wings, funneling the Irish ballhandlers into uncomfortable places and keeping Atkins/ Grant out of the paint.
And with Alex Dragicevich (6 points on 2/9 shooting, 8 attempts beyond arc) forced to shoulder the scoring load with Scott Martin (9/15 for 18 points on the afternoon, 0/4 beyond the arc), the Irish are much less deadly.
Moe Harkless can ball. Faced with a front line of Jack Cooley and versatile guards that are his size, Harkless was up to the challenge. He had a crisp 22 points, and was available to receive the ball whenever the Irish were on a run. Harkless didn't need offensive tip-ins to score today; his jump shot was solid (he even hit a three-pointer) and he worked the baseline to get points. Possible Big East rookie of the year. Make that probable.
Amir Garrett, the basketball star? Garrett has gotten more and more comfortable this season, ready to hit long jumpers, defending without putting up big numbers in the box score.
Tonight, he showed glimpses of why his future may be on the hardwood instead of on the manicured fields of the Cincinnati Reds' farm system.
- With 1:41 left and an open Notre Dame player cocking back to hit a go-ahead three, Garrett covers ground and swats the attempt out of bounds.
- With 56 seconds left and the team up 1, Garrett and Harkless pass the ball along the baseline, freeing Harkless up for a nifty layup - and a free throw, fouling out sharpshooting Pat Connaughton.
- With the team desperately needing a score with 9 seconds left, Garrett snaked his way to a layup in two long strides from the top of the key.
With his athleticism and a jump shot, and an improved dribble, maybe Garrett has a money making future in the basketball ranks.
St. John's won without forcing turnovers. Part of the win is luck; the Irish shot well inside the arc, and Jack Cooley did score 12 points in the second half. The Irish moved the ball better in the second period, and got as close as 1 point away from the tie.
But the Red Storm defense did its job - making the Irish rush, making the Irish uncomfortable. The Irish had 7 turnovers on the night (11% of their possessions) but struggled to settle into position for shots. Moreover, the Johnnies kept the Irish off of the offensive boards, giving up 14 (34% of Notre Dame's possible offensive rebounds). It's not a great percentage, but God`sgift Achiuwa (7 total rebounds) and Sir`Dominic Pointer's (8 total rebounds) battles in the paint helped Moe Harkless and Amir Garrett make the plays they needed to make for the win.