Against Notre Dame, St. John’s figures out a way forward

Steve Lavin. (Howard Megdal)
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Following their 68-51 loss to Georgetown on Saturday, St. John's coach Steve Lavin described his young team as a "roller coaster ride."

Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden, the Red Storm proved his point, playing a strong game throughout a 67-63 victory over Notre Dame, a team ranked 20th in the latest ESPN poll.

“I told you expect the unexpected,” Lavin said at his postgame press conference, sitting in the identical spot as he had three days earlier. “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.”

What was particularly notable about this victory was the extent to which it hinted at a more sustainable path to success for St. John's, rather than simply another peak in an up-and-down season.

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Early this season, the team has been reliant on D'Angelo Harrison, the sophomore guard and leading scorer on the team, to provide the bulk of offense. Georgetown, knowing this, focused their zone on Harrison, and held him to seven points. Accordingly, St. John's had 11 points more than halfway through the first half, and trailed by 22, never recovering.

Notre Dame tried something similar, and Harrison went without a field goal in the first half, and well into the second, finishing with just eight points. He'd scored at least 14 points in every other game St. John's played this season, prior to Saturday.

But St. John's should, in theory, have other scorers; they're just so young, those complementary players haven't fully developed yet. Tuesday night, at least, they showed significant promise.

Jakarr Sampson, the team's other scorer averaging double figures, chipped in his typical 14, and Amir Garrett and Phil Greene IV, a pair of highly touted recruits who haven't lived up to the hype in their season-plus with the program, scored in double figures as well. And Jamal Branch, a transfer from Texas A&M playing in only his fifth game for St. John's, gave the offense dribble penetration it badly needed from the point guard position.

In fact, the three-guard setup Lavin used as his starting lineup on Tuesday made the Red Storm quicker, giving Notre Dame trouble keeping up with them.

Add in the inexplicable decision by Notre Dame coach Mike Brey to sit his best scorer, forward Jack Cooley, for the game's final stretch, a decision that allowed Harrison, then block extraordinaire Chris Obekpa, to reject a pair of late Notre Dame shot attempts near the basket, and St. John's had their most impressive victory of the season, and their most complete one.

"Everyone played a part," Lavin said. "This is what I call a collective win."

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