The measure of how much St. John's wanted to rebound from losses to St. Bonaventure and Fordham will be the bumps and bruises the Johnnies can count after their physical 62-57 victory over Davidson in the semifinals of the Holiday Festival Monday night at Madison Square Garden. The win allows them to advance to Tuesday's final against 8-0 Northwestern.
The tone was set on the last play of the first half when Paris Horne came from behind for a resounding rejection of a layup attempt at the buzzer by De'Mon Brooks, a play that brought a sparse crowd of 6,596 to its feet. It ratcheted up a notch early in the second half when the Wildcats' Clint Mann committed an intentional foul against Justin Brownlee and grew more intense when Brownlee returned the favor by jumping over 6-10 Jake Cohen and riding him to the floor with 6:48 left.
Cohen's two foul shots cut St. John's lead to one point, and Davidson then would tie it twice, the last time on a Brooks layup that made it 57-all with 5:14 left. Just 10 seconds later, Justin Burrell (pictured) put St. John's up again with two free throws, and then, it was just a defensive wrestling match the rest of the way. The only other scoring was a foul shot by St. John's Dwight Hardy for a 60-57 lead with 16.8 seconds left, and after a three-point miss by Davidson's Brendan McKillop at 5.6 seconds, Hardy made two clinching foul shots with 3.4 seconds to go.
D.J. Kennedy, who led the Red Storm (6-3) with 17 points, was asked if the hurt especially of blowing a 21-point lead at Fordham fueled St. John's intensity against Davidson. "Yes," Kennedy said. "I felt late in the game, our mindset was 'Not again.' We refused to lose, and that's why we were able to get the 'W.' Games like [the Fordham loss] kind of go through you. They hurt, but it helps you in the long run."
The ending might have been an artistic eyesore to some, but the toughness and competitive spirit and the determination not to break under pressure the Johnnies showed was rewarding for the new coaching staff headed by Steve Lavin. Despite St. John's difficulty scoring in the final five minutes, the Storm refused to let go of the rope. There were moments like the charge Justin Burrell took at 2:47 and the offensive rebound Justin Brownlee grabbed just before Hardy made the foul shot with 16.8 seconds left.
Davidson's McKillop thought his potential tying shot went in and out to spare St. John's further heartbreak, but that ended a stretch in which the Wildcats missed their final five shots and committed a turnover. Burrell said the Johnnies stressed the need to control the boards at halftime, and they did that by a 21-7 margin in the second half.
"Once you control the boards, you control the game," Burrell said. "We put that in our minds…It really doesn't show, but playing in the Fordham game, we did some great things that piggybacked into this game. That game was a great stepping stone to learn from it."
Lavin said the coaching staff was forced by the Fordham loss to examine what St. John's was doing defensively and make adjustments. In the second half, he switched from zone to man, and he played Burrell down the stretch to make it tough for Davidson to go inside to Jake Cohen (14 points) and Clint Mann (12 points), who totaled only four of those points after intermission.
"We felt we had to really crawl in defensively in terms of our ball pressure," Lavin said. "That was ultimately the difference in the game. At the end of the possession, we put the period at the end of the sentence with the rebound. All the hard work often goes out the window if you don't clean it up with the boards, and that's where I thought Justin Burrell's presence on the defensive boards was a difference and D.J. Kennedy on the offensive boards. The board play at both ends really separated us at the end."
Now, St. John's has to come back with the same intensity in the Festival final against Northwestern. It will be a formidable task against a team averaging 81 points per game, but maybe the Red Storm has discovered the fortitude it needs.