St. John's came in determined to avoid a letdown after breaking into the top 25 rankings and was mindful of its poor 3-2 record at Carnesecca Arena compared to its glossy 7-1 mark at Madison Square Garden, where it has knocked off five highly ranked opponents. The answer to both concerns was its high-energy fullcourt defense that shut down DePaul in a 76-51 Red Storm romp Wednesday night.
The Blue Demons (7-20, 1-14 Big East) shot only 30.9 percent from the field, and they were outrebounded, 43-29. That combination also produced a remarkable 19-0 advantage for St. John's (18-9, 10-5) in fast-break points.
First-year DePaul coach Oliver Purnell was duly impressed. "You've got to give St. John's all the credit in the world," Purnell said. "They played really good basketball, and they showed no signs of a letup. That's the best zone defense we've seen all season long, and they're playing with a lot of confidence."
Red Storm coach Steve Lavin challenged his team to sustain its high level of play and not give in to the tendency to let down against an opponent it was expected to beat. Despite its record, DePaul actually has shown recent signs of improvement, winning one conference game and losing three others by four points or less recently. But St. John's took control early, blowing out to a 33-14 lead after scoring 12 unanswered points, and never looked back or let up the pressure.
Big men Justin Burrell, Justin Brownlee and D.J. Kennedy (pictured) were active under the boards and made it difficult for the Blue Demons to get any easy looks in close. The guards played with high energy out high, and after a couple early threes by DePaul's Jimmy Drew, the Red Storm's defenders really hustled out to extend the defense and guard the three-point line.
"The combination of fullcourt pressure with our changing halfcourt defense is disruptive when we bring good energy and we're active and work in concert," Lavin said. "They attacked us from the three-point line early, and we were able to solve that problem."
It didn't hurt that a sellout crowd of 5,602 was on hand to celebrate the Red Storm's rise to No. 23 in the AP poll and No. 25 in the ESPN/USA Today rankings. During the second half, when St. John's lead reached a high of 30 points at 61-31, Lavin said, "I caught myself looking up to the rafters at the top of the stands and seeing people standing up. They were packed to the rafters. That's the first time this year, and it was impressive."
That's what happens when you give people a reason to cheer. In a sense, the dominating win over DePaul was another breakthrough for St. John's in that it recorded a decisive win over a team it was supposed to beat that way, reinforcing the confidence it has gained from beating some of the country's top teams.
It's starting to look as though St. John's might be able to do some real damage at the Big East tournament and beyond in the NCAA Tournament. "They're a legitimate Big East team," Purnell said. "They can beat anybody in the Big East. We haven't seen Syracuse yet, but they're right there with Pitt, Villanova and Georgetown. If you're legit in the Big East, you can beat anybody in the country."