By Ian Parfrey @Ianparfrey
As Steve Lavin said in his postgame press conference, “This league forces you to play chess.” Tonight, Lavin masterfully outcoached Mike Brey and his #20-ranked Fighting Irish, and the Red Storm (10-7, 2-3 Big East) pulled off a 67-63 upset.
Each team neutralized the opponent’s top scorer. Red Storm shooting guard D’Angelo Harrison was limited to 8 points on 2-of-8 shooting, and Notre Dame center Jack Cooley had 10 points and 3 turnovers in only 18 minutes of play. Harrison played what Coach Lavin called “the most mature game of his career,” and found other ways to contribute. After scoring only two points in the first half, over the final 15 minutes Harrison found Amir Garrett and Christian Jones for easy dunks off of dribble penetration, then hit a long three from the left wing to give St. John’s the lead for good with 2:32 left, and blocked 6-10 center Tom Knight at the rim to preserve the lead in the closing seconds.
The Storm trailed in the early going by as many as six points, before taking their first lead with just under 4 minutes left in the half on a basket by JaKarr Sampson. Sampson had 14 points in the half to lead all scorers, and the Storm took a 32-31 lead into halftime.
The teams traded runs in the second half. St. John’s went on a 21-6 run, capped off by Harrison’s first basket of the game, a three from the right corner with just under 11 minutes to go. At that point the Storm led 55-43, but Notre Dame took advantage of some tentative and sloppy play from the Storm to go on an 18-4 run over the next 7 minutes. Notre Dame took a 61-59 lead on a runner in the lane by Eric Atkins (21 points, 6 steals). Jamal Branch (8 points) scored on a mid-range pullup to tie the game, and Jerian Grant’s layup put Notre Dame ahead by two again.
On St. John’s next possession, Harrison calmly stepped into an NBA-distance three, and got nothing but net to give St. John’s a 64-63 edge. The Storm’s defense made that margin stand up, as the Irish came up empty on their last four possessions, including two spectacular blocks. First, Harrison leaped high to deny Knight, who played down the stretch instead of Jack Cooley. After JaKarr Sampson made 1 of 2 free throws, Chris Obekpa viciously swatted a Pat Connaughty layup attempt off of Connaughty’s head and out of bounds. Jamal Branch made two clutch free throws for the final margin.
Not only did Lavin and the Storm neutralize the Irish’s big bruiser Cooley, they cooled off Notre Dame’s fearsome three point attack. The Irish were only 1-for-9 from downtown, well below their season averages of 7.4 threes per game at a 42% clip. Their top shooter, Scott Martin, was held scoreless in 29 minutes and only attempted two shots. According to Lavin, this was the plan. He played man-to-man defense instead of the Storm’s usual zone, and told his players not to leave the Irish’s perimeter shooters. “What we gave up was the interior,” he said, as Notre Dame scored 44 points in the paint, and guard Eric Atkins repeatedly found easy looks for himself, and his big men. However, the Storm did a good job of denying entry passes to the post, and used their smaller, quicker lineup to beat Notre Dame to loose balls and offensive rebounds.
JaKarr Sampson led the Storm with 17 points. Phil Greene added 13, but shot 6-17 from the floor and only had two assists. Amir Garrett had a strong game off the bench, with 11 points, 3 blocks, and 2 steals in 23 minutes. Lavin said it best: “We’re a work in progress– expect the unexpected– buckle up!”