The Johnnies were promising. Then they were dreadful. Then they got physical.
St. John's (16-13, 8-9 Big East) fell to the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (23-7, 11-6 Big East), 66-40, on Tuesday night in South Bend. With the loss, St. John's has now dropped three consecutive games (or five of six), and has all but eliminated itself from NCAA Tournament at-large consideration.
Both teams came out of the gate shooting as frigidly as the South Bend temperatures. Through the first five minutes, St. John's and Notre Dame had combined for just eight points on 4-15 shooting from the field.
Coming in, the Johnnies knew that the only way they would have a chance to beat the Irish again would be to take advantage of the significant athleticism discrepancy. Notre Dame once again looked timid and over-matched against the Red Storm's athletic defense early on.
After a slow offensive start, an 8-0 burst gave St. John's a six-point lead at 16-10. But it wasn't the Red Storm's offensive performance that kept them toe-and-toe with the Irish. St. John's suffocated Mike Brey's team defensively during the first half, both along the perimeter and in the paint. They blocked six Irish shot attempts before halftime.
In fact, St. John's actually took a 26-22 lead into the locker room. Notre Dame made just eight of its 29 shots in the first half, a full 20 percentage points below its season average.
"Basketball's not that complicated. For the first 20 minutes we played great..." Lavin said post game, before discussing the debacle that was the second half.
The second half began much like the first half ended, with St. John's getting a hand on seemingly every Notre Dame interior look. Chris Obekpa and Sir`Dominic Pointer ended the game with four swats each.
But the Johnnies missed too many shots, and subsequently missed an opportunity to extend its lead against the superior Irish. With a blink of an eye, Notre Dame took a five-point lead following an 14-2 run capped by an Eric Atkins three-pointer.
"We just did such a good job stopping their transition points that it got them frustrated," Jack Cooley said after the game, "they didn't want to play defense because they were too focused on not scoring."
The free-flowing offensive attack that the Johnnies exerted in the latter part of the second half dwindled away as the Red Storm reverted back to its halfcourt stagnancy. They scored just four points in the first eight minutes after halftime.
By the 6:00 mark, Notre Dame had turned what was once a 7-point deficit into a 16-point lead., pulling ahead 50-34. They had outscored the Red Storm by 18 points in the first 13 minutes after intermission, with the Johnnies going 4-18 from the field in that span.
"It's probably the most dominant second half of basketball we've seen this season," Lavin said. "We don't have to look past the second half numbers [to see why we lost]. They got high percentage shots in the paint. They were very aggressive in the paint."
"We were being aggressive off of pick and roll," Atkins added, "[coach Brey] told us he wanted us to be aggressive right from the jump."
As St. John's watched its third straight game slip away, frustration set in. Pointer was called for a flagrant foul before the Johnnies allowed the Irish to extend its overpowering lead to 25 points. Jamal Branch left the game with 11 minutes remaining after committing his third foul. When he finally returned, it was well too late.
Notre Dame star forward Jack Cooley did not play the majority of the second half in the first meeting on January 15th. On Tuesday, he didn't score until the first possession of the second half.
But things changed for Cooley quickly in the second half, where he scored all of his 12 points.
Sir'Dom Pointer's frustration culminated in a vicious scuffle Cameron Biedscheid, where punches were thrown by both sides. Both were ejected from the game. Amir Garrett received a technical foul and ejection for leaving the bench in the altercation, video below.
"Temper got the best of him right there," Phil Greene said afterwards. "He's competitive. You never want a fight to happen, but we're sticking behind Dom."
"Dom apologized for losing his composure and will serve his penalty by missing the final game against Marquette," Lavin tweeted after the game.
Before being ejected, Pointer added 7 points, 12 rebounds, and 4 steals in the loss. By NCAA rule, a player who is ejected for fighting must miss the next game. The Big East will review players leaving the bench and whether any other punishment is warranted.
The Johnnies shot a woeful 30% from the field for the game, and scored just 14 points in the second half after leading by four at half.
St. John's will seek to salvage the regular season on Saturday afternoon, when the Red Storm will welcome the third-place Marquette Golden Eagles to the Garden.