By Jim O’Connell
NEW YORK (AP) St. John’s turned things around against Notre Dame with defense, smothering perimeter defense.
Eight days after a 15-point loss at Notre Dame, St. John’s beat the Irish 72-54 on Sunday at Madison Square Garden.
“My statement is St. John’s defended the heck out us,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “We had trouble with their fullcourt pressure, with their halfcourt stuff. We could never get in any rhythm.”
It’s hard to imagine that two games played between the same teams just eight days apart could be more different.
St. John’s, which trailed 45-22 at halftime last Saturday, led this game 26-19 at halftime, holding the Irish to a school-record low four field goals in the opening 20 minutes of a Big East game.
Things didn’t change much in the second half as St. John’s continued to play strong perimeter defense while shooting 63.6 percent (14 of 22) from the field. They held the Irish, who entered shooting 36.9 percent from beyond the arc, to 3 for 15 (20 percent) for the game.
Notre Dame shot 41 percent for the game (16 of 39), but the Red Storm finished at 48.9 percent.
The Irish committed 20 turnovers, nine over their season average.
The St. John’s scouting report must have changed drastically from one week to the next.
“Our schemes and approach – and this is the mystery of sports that keeps coaches scratching their heads – our scouting report didn’t change from last week, but our execution was at a higher level and we were able to dictate the game and impose our will on Notre Dame,” St. John’s coach Steve Lavin said.
The change in the defense could be attributed to a team looking for revenge and an end to a two-game losing streak.
“This was real big for us, to bounce back from two losses,” said Malik Boothe, who had 14 points. “We were more focused on getting a big payback win. Last week we really didn’t play our best. Against Syracuse we had a good 12 minutes and then they had their way. We played a hard-fought 40 minutes and got the win.”
D.J. Kennedy also scored 14 points for the Red Storm (11-5, 4-2), who lost 76-61 at Notre Dame last Saturday, shooting just 38.2 percent from the field while the Fighting Irish (14-4, 3-3) shot 51 percent.
Notre Dame really hurt itself at the free throw line making 19 of 32 after entering the game at 73.5 percent, fourth in the conference.
Ben Hansbrough, who had a career-high 26 points in the first meeting, led Notre Dame with 18 points.
“We really let the last game get away from us. We felt like they were comfortable on their home court,” Kennedy said of the first meeting. “So we just wanted to come out and be aggressive and make it a little uncomfortable for them, especially Hansbrough. We wanted to apply pressure on all of their perimeter guys.”
Hansbrough said the game’s location had something to do with the difference in defense.
“They played more physical, but part of that may have been because we were on the road,” he said. “In the second half D.J. stepped up and hit some big shots for them.”
Notre Dame got within 37-31 with 13:18 left on a breakaway dunk by Hansbrough that capped a 6-0 run. The crowd of 8,550 started to sense things were going to turnaround. But Kennedy hit his only 3-point attempt of the game 21 seconds later to restore the lead to nine points.
“The shots I take are what I do at practice and after practice,” said Kennedy, who scored all his points in the second half. “Coach forced me to be aggressive at times and that’s what I did.”
St. John’s, one of the Big East’s worst 3-point shooting teams at 30 percent, finished 4 for 9 (44.4 percent) from 3-point range.
St. John’s biggest lead was 55-36 on a drive by Dwight Hardy with 6:28 to play. Notre Dame went on a 10-2 run to get within 11, but Kennedy hit a hurried bank shot and was fouled for a three-point play with 4:15 remaining.
“That was Kennedy being Kennedy,” Brey said “He’s a main guy and he bangs down a 3 from in front of their bench. That’s what a senior and one of the better players in the league did. It’s what he should do.”
This was the fourth of eight straight games against ranked teams for the Red Storm. They started the run with a win over Georgetown, then lost to Notre Dame and Syracuse.
“Look at anybody’s next six games in this league,” Brey said, referring to the Big East having half of the top 10 and eight overall in the poll. “It is by far the best league in the country. Everybody watches it because it’s drama and it’s playing out again.”
This is the first time St. John’s has beaten two ranked teams in a season since 2005-06, when they defeated Louisville and Pittsburgh.
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