With five sophomores and four freshmen in his rotation, St. John's coach Steve Lavin has braced for ups and downs this season. Tuesday night certainly was a high point, as the Red Storm beat No. 20 Notre Dame, 67-63, at Madison Square Garden.
"We're a work in progress," Lavin said. "As I said the other day, expect the unexpected, buckle up and enjoy the roller-coaster ride with this wonderfully young team, who will at times play maddening basketball, but also balance it out with some brilliant play."
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Tuesday night was the full experience, as the Red Storm started slowly, charged to a 12-point lead midway through the second half and held on with clutch defense down the stretch.
Notre Dame capped a 20-6 run with a driving layup by Jerian Grant to take a 63-61 lead with 2:50 left. St. John's finished on a 7-0 run as they beat the Irish for the third straight year.
"Coming off a loss to Georgetown, that definitely wasn't the way we play," sophomore forward Amir Garrett said. "We came out with intensity and we were very fierce."
D'Angelo Harrison provided the two biggest plays of the finishing kick. The sophomore guard had been shut down until he drilled a three-pointer from the left wing to give the Red Storm a 64-63 lead with 2:32 left.
That was still the score when Notre Dame got the ball with 39 seconds left after a St. John's shot-clock violation. Grant (14 points) drove into the lane and found Tom Knight open on the left block, but Harrison flew in and blocked Knight's layup attempt with 20 seconds left.
"I knew he didn't see me," Harrison said. "He put up the ball. I didn't think he was a very good athlete, so right when I saw the ball, I attacked the ball."
JaKarr Sampson, who led the way with 17 points, made 1 of 2 free throws to put St. John's up 65-63. Pat Connaughton's driving layup attempt with seven seconds left was swatted by Chris Obekpa and the ball deflected off of Connaughton out of bounds. Jamal Branch then made two free throws to ice the win.
Obekpa is the nation's leading shot blocker, but was limited to two rejections in 10 minutes, as Lavin adjusted his lineup to account for Notre Dame's perimeter shooting. The strategy worked, as the Irish made just 1 of 9 three-pointers after entering as the ninth most accurate team in the nation on threes.
Harrison shot 2-for-8 and had eight points, failing to reach double figures for the second straight game. Dating to last season, he had scored in double figures in 29 straight games before being held to seven points in a 67-51 loss to Georgetown on Saturday. Phil Greene (13 points) and Garrett (11) responded after going scoreless against Georgetown.