St. John's didn't look like the team that blew a 21-point lead against Fordham as it came from behind in the second half to dominate previously undefeated Northwestern and pull away to a 85-69 victory in the finals of the holiday Festival Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden. More importantly, St. John's didn't look like the Red Storm team that lost the Festival final to Cornell a year ago with the same roster minus freshman Dwayne Polee (pictured).
Under former coach Norm Roberts, the same group of players tended to settle too often for three-point shots when the transition game broke down and they had to face a set defense. Since the beginning of this season, new coach Steve Lavin and his staff have worked to break the Johnnies of those habits, trying to establish an inside-out approach to the game where three-pointers come in the flow of the offense and are logical because ball movement into the low post has caused the defense to collapse and leave the perimeter open.
As it happened against Northwestern (8-1), St. John's was so successful going to Justin Burrell and Justin Brownlee on the low blocks against the Wildcats' 1-3-1 zone that those two keyed an offense that shot 80 percent in the second half (16 of 20). While tourney MVP Brownlee was scoring 21 points and Burrell was adding 17, outside bomber Dwayne hardy generally had time to set his feet behind the three-point arc and square up to hit 5 of 9 on the way to 24 points.
At the other end of the floor, the Red Storm was equally successful on defense in the second half, holding Wildcats star John Shurna to nine of his 28 points. Brownlee ran at him and tried to make it tough for Shurna even to catch the ball. After Northwestern took a 51-50 lead, St. John's put together a 19-6 run that ended with six straight layups against Northwestern's 1-3-1 zone. In that same stretch, Shurna got off one shot.
"I think we put together in the second half the offense and the defense, and we had what I call a 'breakthrough,'" Lavin said. "Oftentimes, you plateau, but if you stay after it and keep working, there will be a breakthrough. Coming off the St. Bonaventure and Fordham losses, I was really encouraged with the progress we were making in certain areas. It was hard that we lost the games, but I could feel the breakthrough on the horizon. I think we've seen that in this Festival."
Although he wasn't as prominent as veterans Hardy, Brownlee, Burrell and D.J. Kennedy (13 points), Polee had his best game after struggling to fit in and often looking lost earlier in the season. He finished with 10 points, five rebounds and one blocked shot in 19 minutes, and he shot 5 of 7 from the field and did a good defensive job on the Wildcats' Drew Crawford in the second half. Because of his slashing ability, Polee was able to get to the rim, and he also was able to penetrate the zone and pull up to create an open shot over Northwestern.
"If I get in the paint and can take a two-foot stop and gather myself and jump, then I feel like nobody can block my shot," Polee said. Discussing his previous troubles, the freshman from Los Angeles added, "I wasn't letting the offense come to me. I was kind of hunting for shots. Coach told me to take shots within the rhythm of the offense. I just have to take my time and let the shots come to me and find openings and gaps to get my game started other ways."
If Polee can continue to play under control as he did against Northwestern, his role could grow during Big East play. Give Lavin credit for taking him out of the starting lineup earlier and using him sparingly while Polee learned the ropes.
"I think he's had a breakthrough," Lavin said of Polee. "He's a microcosm of the larger picture of our team. We're seeing that with a number of players who are blossoming before our eyes. We're playing with a higher level of confidence and more efficient."
If the Johnnies did have a breakthrough, it didn't come a moment too soon. When they return from holiday break to begin the Big East schedule with the first three out of four games on the road, starting Dec. 29 at West Virginia, which was in the Final Four last season. Considering all the positive signs they showed against a very good Northwestern team, it seems the Johnnies just might have found a winning formula they can rely on going forward.