NEW YORK– St. John’s is one of those sneaky teams that can pop up on a contender’s schedule down the stretch. Playing with a six-man rotation, the historically young Red Storm have had a trial by fire in 2011-12 and a spoiler has emerged.
No. 20 Notre Dame found that out on Saturday afternoon.
Freshmen Moe Harkless and D’Angelo Harrison combined to score 37 of St. John’s 61 points and helped to stave off a late Notre Dame run to sink the Irish, 61-58, at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
“I thought their defense really bothered us and sped us up,” said Notre Dame coach Mike Brey. “We had some great looks and didn’t make enough of them. You’re going to have to make some more jumpshots in the top of that zone to escape here today.”
That St. John’s zone kept Notre Dame on the perimeter and forced the Irish into 31 shots from the beyond the arc, of which they only converted four, giving them a dismal 12% clip on the afternoon.
Guard Jerian Grant, who had been averaging 13 points per game and was a 37% shooter from three on the year, was held to 1-of-9 from the floor and 0-of-5 from distance.
Even while forcing 16 St. John’s turnovers and grabbing 13 offensive rebounds, the shooting woes were too difficult to overcome.
“It was a big problem for us,” said senior Scott Martin, who was a bright spot for Notre Dame, finishing with 14 points. “[St. John’s] frustrated us and made us take [shots] from a little deeper than we wanted to take them.”
“We were digging out of a hole on the road and we’ve done that a couple times,” Brey explained. “I almost felt like the Law of Averages said, ‘You can’t have this one.’”
The loss snapped Notre Dame’s nine-game winning streak and made some shifts in the race for the top of the Big East.
Syracuse now clinches the Big East regular season title. It also keeps Marquette in good position for a Top 4 finish in the conference, which would mean a double-bye in the Big East Tournament.
Perhaps that’s something for Buzz Williams to dance about.
Loss aside, Notre Dame’s improbable season, especially considering the loss of star Tim Abromaitis early in the year, continues on.
“I wanted to see if I could red-shirt that year,” Brey jokingly recalled about his feeling after receiving the news of Abromaitis’ injury.
“When that went down, it affected Scott for a good six weeks, but it was a great atmosphere to coach in because there was no attention. [Critics said] we were done, wait until next year.”
Brey says that the time spent out of the media spotlight helped his team to come together after the loss of their Preseason All-Big East First Team selection.
He credits his young players, including point guard Eric Atkins, for stepping up in Abromaitis’ absence.
“We know our program has played through adversity before,” said forward Jack Cooley, whose emergence has been key to the Irish’s success. “Coach knows how to coach us when we’re a man down and we know how to play like that.”
The Irish move on to play Georgetown on Monday night, which will have important implications in seeding for the Big East Tournament.
The Hoyas, who got a convincing win at home over Villanova on Saturday, could tie Notre Dame in the conference with another win on Monday night.
If the Irish want to fend off the Hoya advance, they’ll need to shoot a better percentage than they did on Saturday afternoon.
“We had a good look to get to overtime, but we didn’t deserve it,” Brey said in closing about the loss to St. John’s. “They deserved it.”
Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_