St. John's was in dire need of a good performance on Tuesday night against Notre Dame. They got one, and then some.
St. John's (10-7, 2-3 Big East) pulled off the upset over #20 Notre Dame Fighting Irish, 67-63, at Madison Square Garden. After losing two consecutive games to Rutgers and Georgetown at home, the Red Storm salvaged the homestand with an impressive performance in front of the home New York City crowd.
A nail-biting final six minutes came down to the last minute, when St. John's was forced to make a defensive stand. The Johnnies stopped the Irish in their last two possessions on two blocked shots - one from D`Angelo Harrison and the other by Chris Obekpa.
Steve Lavin decided to keep Obekpa out of the starting lineup, seeking a unit that would keep the Fighting Irish shooters contested. But the immediate result was six easy Notre Dame lay-ups in the first six minutes.
St. John's then tightened things up defensively to close out the half, making things extremely uncomfortable for Notre Dame on the offensive end. The uncontested looks that they were getting early were no longer there, and they didn't have the three-pointer to turn to. They went 0-5 from deep before intermission.
"We basically just pressured the ball," Harrison mentioned afterwards of the Johnnies' defensive effort. "I know they had easy shots, but when it was time to lock up, we did."
Much like Georgetown did in Saturday's rout of St. John's, Notre Dame made sure to keep D`Angelo Harrison under wraps. Though the Irish came out in a halfcourt zone defense, Harrison struggled to get open shots early in the first half. He only had 2 points before halftime, which both came from the free throw line.
But St. John's was able to stay close by finding offensive production elsewhere. JaKarr Sampson, Phil Greene IV, and Amir Garrett each had made multiple baskets in the first ten minutes, and the Johnnies also got contributions from Sir`Dominic Pointer and Jamal Branch.
In fact, Sampson had an impressive 14 first half points catapulting his Johnnies to a 32-31 halftime lead.
Both teams came out with high energy out of the locker room. St. John's was paced early in the second half by Greene, who hit the first three pointer of the game (for either team) at the 16:58 mark.
Jack Cooley, who sat out the final few minutes of the first half after committing his second foul, picked up his third personal foul before the 15:00 mark of the second half on an Amir Garrett bucket that gave St. John's a 41-39 lead.
A 10-0 run capped by a Greene mid-range jumper extended the Red Storm's lead to 47-39 with 12:24 left. The Garden crowd gave the Johnnies a standing ovation for one of the few times this season.
Notre Dame didn't go away when St. John's made their run. Pat Connaughton made the Irish's first three-pointer at the 9:15 mark. Four minutes later, Notre Dame tied the game 59-59 after a flurry of poor St. John's offensive possessions.
Pointer, who scored 8 important points for St. John's and wreaked havoc defensively, fouled out of the game with 7:36 left when he was unable to get positioning on an Eric Atkins drive. Pointer's absence allowed the Irish to regain the lead.
A Harrison three-pointer from well beyond NBA range gave St. John's the lead back with two minutes left. The Red Storm had an opportunity to extend their lead in the final minute in a hard-fought match, but were unable to get a shot off before the shot clock ran out with 37 seconds to play.
After the two blocks from Harrison and Obekpa, St. John's sent Branch to the line to seal it. Two nerve-free swishes later, the Johnnies walked away with the big win.
"There were so many aspects of the game that I am going to enjoy watching," Steve Lavin said. "From possession to possession, we made a lot of adjustments."
Sampson led the way for St. John's with 17 points on 5-14 shooting. Greene (13) and Garrett (11) joined him in double figures, while Harrison only scored 8.
For the Irish, Eric Atkins led the team in scoring with 21 points on 7-9 shooting. Jerian Grant scored 14 and Jack Cooley added 10.
But Mike Brey questionably kept Cooley, arguably Notre Dame's best player, on the bench down the stretch.
At Big East Media Day in November, Brey told the Rumble what St. John's does to his team that makes them uncomfortable. He stressed that ball pressure and his team's uncharacteristic way of turning the ball over against St. John's puts them at a disadvantage. It's the way the Red Storm did it once again against Brey's Irish.
Notre Dame's fortune at Madison Square Garden against St. John's hasn't been in their favor in recent years. With the loss, the Irish still have not beaten the Red Storm on their home floor since 2004. Tonight, they suffered their fifth straight loss on the Garden floor to the Johnnies.
St. John's will next travel to Chicago for a meeting with the DePaul Blue Demons on Saturday at noon.
"Tonight, [our team] really grew up," Lavin mentioned. "But it doesn't mean anything. We have to do it at DePaul now."