With one of the youngest teams in Division I college basketball, there's not much of a history to go on with Coach Steve Lavin's Red Storm squad. So it's understandable while every game this season has been a learning experience.
Just three days after playing one of its worst games of the season, the Red Storm came up with a stalwart effort in a 67-63 victory over No. 20 Notre Dame on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden.
It was hard to believe St. John’s was the same team that lost 67-51 to then-No. 19 Georgetown on Saturday on the same court.
“I told you to expect the unexpected,” Lavin said of his roster that has only one active scholarship upperclassman. “Buckle up and enjoy the roller coaster ride with this young team, that at times is maddening. But they balance it out with some brilliant play.”
Playing man-to-man rather than a zone defense as they have all season, St. John’s opened the game strong, unlike the previous contest, and held a 32-31 lead at halftime.
“We came out very intense today,” forward Amir Garrett said. “Against Georgetown that definitely wasn’t the way we played.”
The Red Storm (10-7, 2-3 Big East), which had lost two straight and four of five, had a 12-point lead midway through the second half and despite giving it all up, they managed to score the game’s final six points for the win, the third-straight over the Fighting Irish (14-3, 2-2) and fifth-straight over Notre Dame at The Garden.
“We knew they were going to make a run,’’ Garrett said of the Irish. ``In the last minutes we had to find a way to sustain the lead.”
St. John’s did just that, using the Red Storm’s mode of choice this season: the blocked shot.
St. John’s entered the game leading the nation in blocked shots at 8.56 per game. The Red Storm finished with nine for the contest, the two biggest on two of Notre Dame’s last three possessions in the final 20 seconds.
D’Angelo Harrison, a 6-3 guard, blocked a shot by 6-10 Tom Knight and JaKarr Sampson made one of two free throws with 19.7 seconds left. Chris Obekpa, who leads the nation with 5.13 blocks per game, got his second of the game when he blocked Pat Connaughton’s drive off his head and out of bounds with 7.6 seconds left.
”Chris got the block after me when he blocked it off his head,” said Harrison, who totaled a career-high three rejections. “He said ‘I got your back.’ I felt like I was a shot blocker today.”
Freshman forward Sampson scored 14 of his 17 points in the first half for St. John’s while Phil Greene IV had 13, four rebounds and two assists, and Garrett totaled 11 points on 5-of-7 shooting to go along with three boards and three blocks.
“They did a good job of pressuring the ball,” Notre Dame’s Garrick Sherman said. “We really couldn’t get any offensive rhythm in the last two minutes just because of their ball pressure.”
Irish head coach Mike Brey agreed.
“They really guarded the heck out of us with their speed and over the course of time it wore on us,” he said.
The teams play again March 5 at Notre Dame. Next, however, the Red Storm opens a home-and-home season series at DePaul on Saturday, Jan. 19, at noon on SNY.