Boothe provides spark for Red Storm

NEW YORK -- On the list of potential heroes for St. John's on Sunday, Malik Boothe's name would not have appeared anywhere near the top.

Boothe had scored in double figures only once this season -- in the Red Storm's very first game, at Saint Mary's on Nov. 16. He was averaging just 3.9 points in 19.1 minutes per game.

But the 5-foot-9 senior from Queens stood taller than anyone else on Sunday afternoon at the Garden, scoring 14 points off the bench and leading St. John's to a 72-54 win over No. 11-ranked Notre Dame.

St. John's coach Steve Lavin said Boothe was awarded the game ball in the locker room after the victory.

"He's someone that can provide those jumper cables for your team because of his ball pressure, and then the ability to push the ball or escort the ball up the floor in transition," Lavin said. "He has a great competitive spirit that also is contagious -- the other kids, the other players feed off of that.

"Today clearly he did all the things that a point guard needs to do."

For St. John's (11-5, 4-2 in the Big East), the win snaps a two-game losing streak -- including a 76-61 manhandling by this very same Fighting Irish team in South Bend, Ind., just eight days ago. Now, coupled with their win over Georgetown on Jan. 3, the Red Storm have beaten two top-25 teams in a season for the first time since 2005-06.

"It's real big for us, to bounce back from the two losses," Boothe said. "[But] I think we were more focused on getting the payback win. Because last week when we played them, we really didn't play our best. We came out flat."

St. John's was anything but flat in this game, ratcheting up the defensive pressure from the opening tip. The Red Storm came out in an aggressive man-to-man, picking up full-court pressure, and were relentless in applying ball pressure on the perimeter and getting their hands in the passing lanes.

Notre Dame (14-4, 3-3), which came in averaging 77 points per game and shooting 45 percent from the field, shot just 41 percent, made only three of its 15 3-point attempts, and finished 23 points under its average.

"St. John's defended the heck out of us," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. "We had trouble against their full-court pressure, we had trouble against their half-court stuff. They athletically defended us, and we never could get into much of a rhythm."

Lavin credited his players for the extra defensive effort. "I think today you had a determined group that understood they'd lost two games, and the significance of the game becomes bigger when you're coming off consecutive losses," Lavin said. "And then there's the payback element, because they thumped us good in South Bend."

"We felt like last game [against Notre Dame] we let that get away from us. Ball pressure -- they were comfortable on the court," said D.J. Kennedy, who also scored 14 points for St. John's, all in the second half. "So we just wanted to come out and be aggressive. We just wanted to make sure we applied pressure on all their perimeter men."

Another reason for the added intensity was Lavin's more liberal use of his bench. Starters Dwight Hardy, Kennedy and Justin Brownlee have all been playing very heavy minutes over the past few weeks. In fact, all three played the entire 40 minutes in the win over Georgetown. Lavin sensed some fatigue in recent days, so he went 10 deep in his rotation on Sunday.

"I think if I'd point to one thing today," Lavin said, "we were able to sustain our energy in a much more effective manner, because we used 10 players."

Several reserves made significant contributions, but the most important was Boothe -- the team's starting point guard at the beginning of the season, who has been hampered by a nagging hamstring injury.

Boothe was intentionally vague when asked if he is back to 100 percent from the injury. "I'm fine, I'm fine," Boothe said. "I've gotta continue to work to get better."

He looked close to 100 percent, especially during a stretch midway through the first half when he scored eight straight points for the Red Storm. That included back-to-back 3-pointers, which allowed St. John's to jump out to an early 16-6 lead.

"He gives them an edge and a toughness," Brey said of Boothe. "They are men, and they played like men. And treated us like boys at times."

Boothe did not play in the win over Georgetown, and has now come off the bench in the team's three games since. Lavin said he expects to continue to tinker with his starting lineup the rest of the season, so he was not sure if Boothe will be reinserted or continue to come off the bench.

Boothe, who started every single game he played in the past two seasons, did not sound too concerned about the starting-lineup issue after such a big win.

"It's not really different, because I've done it before -- my freshman year I came off the bench," Boothe said. "I just look at it is, me coming off the bench giving a spark when Coach thinks it's needed. I think I did a good job of that today."

Kieran Darcy is a staff writer for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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