When Duke's second-half lead over St. John's reached 22 points Saturday afternoon at Cameron Indoor Stadium, it appeared the Red Storm's freshman-dominated team was in for an embarrassing showing on national TV. Maybe as bad as the 22-point loss at Kentucky earlier this season.
But Moe Harkless and D'Angelo Harrison, who quickly are becoming an effective 1-2 punch, led a stirring comeback that had CBS announcers Brent Musberger and Dick Vitale gushing about the potential St. John's showed as it battled valiantly to the end of an 83-76 loss to the Blue Devils (18-3), who are ranked No. 8 by AP and No. 6 by ESPN/USA Today.
Harkless finished with 30 points and 13 rebounds, and Harrison poured in 21 points, including a three-point basket with 20.7 seconds left that cut Duke's lead to 79-75. "We were tired of making mistakes," Harrison said. "We fought for it, but we came up short."
St. John's (9-12) is 0-8 against ranked teams this season, but a team that started five freshmen for the second straight game showed how much it has developed this season under assistant Mike Dunlap, who is coaching the team while Steve Lavin continues his recovery from prostate cancer surgery.
"I think this was a very valuable lesson for a young team," Dunlap said. "We have to be better than 11 for 21 from the line, make better decisions sometimes in transition and avoid some ill-advised shots that can lead to momentum shifts in a place like Cameron.
"But our guys are maturing quickly. The Villanova game [a 79-76 OT loss a week earlier] was a heck of a game, we got a tremendous win versus West Virginia [78-62 on Wednesday] and then put together this second half today. This team is maturing, ascending. You can see it before your very eyes."
Duke had a big advantage in height and manpower. Ryan Kelly led the Blue Devils with 16 points; Mason Plumlee was a force in the paint with 15 points and 17 rebounds; Andre Dawkins scored 14, and Austin Rivers added 12. But Harkless, who made 13 of 21 shots, clearly was the best player on the floor.
In the first half, Harkless (pictured) made a spin move in the paint to get to the rim for a highlight-reel dunk that cut Duke's lead to 23-20. The Red Storm got a stop at the other end with a held ball only to have the possession arrow point to the Blue Devils, who then took control with a 20-3 run, beginning with a corner three by Dawkins.
But the Red Storm fought back in the second half and cut Duke's lead to 63-56 when Phil Greene nailed a three-pointer with 9:06 left to play. The Blue Devils slowed St. John's momentum when Rivers drove from the wing for layups on each of the next two Duke possessions. The Devils' lead climbed to 13 with 3:08 left, but Harkless made four straight baskets, including a three in a 9-2 St. John's run that cut the deficit to 78-72 with 38 seconds remaining.
After Kelly made one of two foul shots, Harrison's three pulled the Red Storm within four at 79-75 with 22 seconds left. That was as close as they got as the Blue Devils made their last four foul shots.
Explaining how he took charge, Harkless said, "My teammates are doing a better job of finding me and getting me the ball, and I'm more comfortable now taking shots in big games along with D'Angelo. I'm just upset we lost.
"This game was personal. Coach Dunlap preaches that he respects Duke, but he wants to beat them. He put that in everybody's head."
It showed in the second half at Duke and in the way St. John's performances against quality opponents keep improving.