- Kieran Darcy, ESPNNewYork.com
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NEW YORK -- What a difference three days make.
St. John’s rebounded from its worst performance of the season, against Georgetown on Saturday, by upsetting No. 20 Notre Dame on Tuesday at Madison Square Garden, 67-63.
Coach Steve Lavin rolled the dice, ditching his matchup zone and making several personnel changes, and he was rewarded.
“We’re a work in progress,” Lavin said. “As I said the other day, expect the unexpected. Buckle up, and enjoy the roller-coaster ride with this wonderfully young team who will at times play maddening basketball but also balance it out with some brilliant play.”
First, Lavin went with a smaller lineup -- inserting guard Jamal Branch and forward Sir'Dominic Pointer into the starting five, replacing Amir Garrett and Chris Obekpa. The demotion of Obekpa was puzzling, considering he is the leading shot-blocker in the country and the team’s lone true low-post player, and Notre Dame’s star is 6-foot-9 bruiser Jack Cooley.
Then, St. John’s came out and played man-to-man defense, as opposed to the matchup zone the Red Storm have employed for most of the season. When Notre Dame jumped out to an early six-point lead, built mostly on layups and dunks inside, it looked like Lavin’s moves would backfire.
But by halftime, St. John’s had a slim lead, 32-31. The Red Storm surged ahead by as many as 12 in the second half, 55-43 with 10:50 remaining. And perhaps most impressive of all, the young Johnnies, after coughing up that lead and trailing by two with less than three minutes left, still found a way to win.
The two biggest plays of the game actually came on the defensive end. With St. John’s back in front 64-63 and with 25 seconds left, 6-foot-3 D’Angelo Harrison came from behind to block a layup attempt by 6-foot-10 Tom Knight. And with eight seconds left and St. John’s up 65-63, Obekpa swatted away a Pat Connaughton layup to preserve the victory.
Notre Dame did not score in the final 2 minutes and 48 seconds of the game.
“They really guarded the heck out of us with their speed,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said, “and over the course of time, it wore on us.”
The Fighting Irish were one of the top 3-point shooting teams in the country, making 7.4 treys per game and shooting 41.8 percent from beyond the arc -- ninth-best in Division I.
St. John’s limited Notre Dame to just nine attempts from beyond the arc and one make. It was arguably the Red Storm’s finest defensive performance of the season, despite Obekpa playing only 10 minutes (and foul trouble wasn’t a factor).
“This league forces you to play chess. And so much of it is matchups,” Lavin said. “We just had to stay attached [to Notre Dame’s shooters], and what we gave up were the layups, what we gave up was the interior.”
Freshman forward Jakarr Sampson had a team-high 17 points for the Red Storm, with Phil Greene adding 13 and Garrett chipping in 11. Harrison -- averaging 20.6 points per game, 14th in the country -- scored just eight points, shooting 2-for-8 from the field. But he hit two 3s in the second half, and had five rebounds, three assists and three blocks -- including the potential game saver in the final minute.
“I thought it was D’Angelo’s most mature game of his career,” Lavin said. “Given what was at stake, the way he was defended and him keeping his patience.”
St. John’s had looked beyond lethargic in a 67-51 loss to Georgetown three days ago, a blowout from practically the opening tip. After that game, Garrett pledged that the Red Storm would look like a different team against Notre Dame. “We’re gonna come out hungry,” Garrett said, “hungrier than we’ve ever been.”
He was right. The Red Storm even outrebounded the significantly bigger Fighting Irish 36-32, including a 15-8 advantage on the offensive glass.
“We came out very intense today,” Garrett said. “Coming off a loss to Georgetown, that definitely wasn’t the way that we play. We had a good two days of practice. So we knew we just had to come out hard today, and we came out and got the win.”
“It feels good,” Greene said. “We gotta play every game like that. We gotta come out aggressive. Coach wanted us to be aggressive and just play hard on defense and pressure 'em. Offense will come for us through our defense.”
St. John’s (10-7, 2-3 Big East) is still under .500 in the conference but is entering a softer part of its schedule. Its next four games are against DePaul, Rutgers, Seton Hall and DePaul again. And the Red Storm already have a pair of top-25 wins (53-52 against then-No. 14 Cincinnati being the other) on their résumé -- twice as many as they had last season.
This was a big one, but Lavin wasn’t getting carried away afterward.
“I’m no more high on this team and I’m no more down on this team,” Lavin said. “It is who we are, and we’re gonna keep working at it, trying to get better. I like the pieces, I love the personnel, but we’re just young, so it’s gonna be maddening at times for our staff and our fans.”
Maddening, yet endearing, too.