One year ago, St. John's lost the Holiday Festival final to Cornell, a budding candidate to be an NCAA Cinderella team. But facing an undefeated Northwestern team that hopes to try on the glass slipper in March, the Red Storm finally hit its stride last night under new coach Steve Lavin to score an 85-69 victory for their second tournament title of the young season.
Although Northwestern (8-1) got 28 points from star John Shurna and 17 from Danny Crawford, the Red Storm (7-3) clamped down defensively on a team that came in averaging 81.5 points per game. The Storm shot 80 percent on offense (16-for-20) in the second half.
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It was easily the best showing of the new Lavin regime. Dwight Hardy led St. John's with 24 points, but it was the effective play of tournament MVP Justin Brownlee (21 points, six rebounds) and Justin Burrell (17 points, seven rebounds) on the inside against the Wildcats' 1-3-1 zone that was key to the win. The Johnnies also got effective play off the bench from freshman Dwayne Polee (10 points, five rebounds). "This was a big game for us," Brownlee said. "We had a breakthrough."
Shurna had 19 of his points by halftime when Northwestern's lead was 40-37, but St. John's put together a 13-5 surge coming out of the locker room for a 50-45 lead. Brownlee had eight points in that stretch, including three layups from good passing against the zone.
Explaining how the Red Storm attacked the zone, Brownlee said: "They had a point guard in the back . If Burrell got the ball, he had a mismatch, so we looked for him and were going to him. Coach emphasized attacking the rim, and we're doing a better job."
If Shurna wasn't scoring for the Wildcats, almost no one else was. Six straight points by Shurna gave the Purple a 51-50 lead, but St. John's responded with a 10-2 burst for its biggest lead at 60-53 as Polee made two nice baskets and later rose to block a shot in his most effective game yet.
With the two Justins playing off each other beautifully down low against the zone, St. John's pushed its lead to 69-57 by getting to the rim. A year ago, the Storm was content to fire up threes, but now they come more in the context of an offense playing from inside out.
Lavin said it was a matter of the offense finding its "second gear" against a set defense. "When the defense is organized and we want to go through our post entries and probe and work inside-out."
It's a winning formula.
Notes & quotes: In the consolation game, Davidson (6-5) held off St. Francis (6-5) of Brooklyn, 76-69. The Wildcats were led by Jake Cohen (17 points, six rebounds, three blocks). Ricky Cadell paced the Terriers with 21 points.