Commentary

Heads-up effort has Johnnies sky-high

Red Storm ends brutal stretch with affirming win over No. 3 Blue Devils

Updated: January 31, 2011, 12:08 PM ET
By Kieran Darcy | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- As the final seconds ticked away on Sunday afternoon at Madison Square Garden, the outcome -- as expected -- was no longer in doubt.

Except, instead of a Duke player dribbling out the clock, it was St. John's guard Dwight Hardy.

Coach Steve Lavin was working his way down to the end of the St. John's bench, slapping every hand along the way. Pockets of St. John's fans were edging closer to the court, preparing to rush on and celebrate. Countless others in the sellout crowd of 19,353 were surely pinching themselves.

But there was one more moment of drama. As the final horn sounded, Hardy hurled the ball high into the air, in the direction of the St. John's bench. Special assistant Gene Keady pointed at it, and screamed.

When asked what was going through his mind in the final seconds of such a momentous victory, St. John's forward Justin Burrell said, "Yeah, when Dwight threw the ball up, I didn't want it to hit anybody."

But the ball fell harmlessly to the floor, and St. John's walked away with a 93-78 win over the No. 3 team in the nation, one of the most stunning results of this college basketball season.

"I thought our team from the outset executed with precision on offense, and brought great intensity to the defensive end of the floor," Lavin said. "And [we] were able to maintain a high level of basketball for 40 minutes. And that was the difference."

St. John's (12-8, 4-5 in the Big East) was simply brilliant in the first half, amassing a 46-25 lead at intermission. The Red Storm picked apart the Blue Devils' defense, repeatedly taking advantage of aggressive close-outs with backdoor cuts for easy buckets. And on the other end, the St. John's full-court press and half-court trap rattled Duke, preventing the Blue Devils from developing any rhythm offensively.

In the second half, St. John's withstood a couple of comeback jabs by the Blue Devils, never allowing them to get the margin closer than 11. Hardy finished with a team-high 26 points on 9-for-13 shooting. Justin Brownlee had 20 points and nine rebounds, while Paris Horne finished with 15 points and six assists.

St. John's shot 58.2 percent from the field for the game (32-for-55), and limited Duke to just 41.9 percent shooting. The Blue Devils, in the top 20 in the country in both 3-pointers per game and 3-point percentage, shot just 5-for-26 from beyond the arc.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was very complimentary of St. John's after the game, but very disappointed in his own team and its effort.

[+] EnlargeSt Johns
Nick Laham/Getty ImagesSt. John's finished 3-5 in an a recent eight-game stretch against AP Top 25 teams.

"In order to beat [St. John's] today we would have had to shown up and be ready to compete at the level that we normally compete at," Krzyzewski said. "As a program today, we did not show up to compete, until about the middle of the second half, and that's extremely disappointing.

"But again, we may not have beaten them anyway. Because they played really well. ... They passed the ball brilliantly. They really played beautifully as a team."

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of this victory is the fact that it came on the heels of a 25-point loss at Georgetown on Wednesday, one of the Red Storm's worst performances of the season. After that loss -- the fifth in their past six games -- the players were extremely discouraged, even talking about holding a players-only meeting upon their return to New York.

That meeting never happened. Instead, after a day off on Thursday, Lavin and his assistants put the players through a bruising, three-hour practice -- their longest practice of the season.

"We definitely, after the Georgetown game, were very disappointed in our effort," Burrell said. "So we talked a lot amongst ourselves and said we have to make a change. But really, the real change came with our coaching staff. I mean, they really got after us the last two days, and talked about the effort it takes to win games.

"These last two days -- man, if you look around our team, we all have fat lips, scratched eyes, couple ankles swollen, everything. But at the end of the day, we're back there in practice, fighting. And that's what we came out and did today."

This game marks the end of an extremely difficult stretch for St. John's, playing eight straight teams ranked in the Associated Press' Top 25 in the country. The Red Storm went 3-5 -- not as well as they would have liked, to be sure. But their three wins -- against Georgetown, Notre Dame and now Duke -- mark the first time St. John's has recorded three wins against top-25 teams in a season since 2001-02.

"They're making progress, but you don't always see it, in terms of wins," Lavin said. "And that's the tough part. But the progress is being made, and today was an indication of another breakthrough."

After seven straight losses to Duke, St. John's now has a signature win against the Blue Devils on its résumé that could come in handy when the NCAA tournament selection committee convenes in March. But the players and coaches know there's still plenty of work to be done. Playing in the Big East, the schedule doesn't get much easier -- St. John's will play three more top-10 teams in February: UConn, Pitt and Villanova.

Lavin was asked how, in his former job as a television analyst, he would assess this St. John's team and its NCAA tournament chances right now.

"What I would say ... is they've got to keep winning games," Lavin said. "They've got to keep making progress. It's up to St. John's to determine their destiny."

The Red Storm's next opportunity comes Wednesday, against Rutgers at Carnesecca Arena.

"We had a tough stretch," Hardy said. "But we came out and played the No. 3 team in the country hard. And it goes to show that if we just play St. John's basketball for 40 minutes, we can compete with any team in the country."

Indeed, it was a heads-up performance from beginning to end.

Kieran Darcy is an ESPNNewYork.com staff writer. He joined ESPN in August 2000 after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, where he played four years of JV basketball.
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