Long-dormant St. John's shows signs of progress by routing Duke
As St. John's pushed its lead over Duke to 66-45 eight minutes into the second half, a sold-out Madison Square Garden rose to its feet as the teams went to a television timeout. While Mike Krzyzewski tracked down the nearest referee to chastise, his slick-haired adversary on the other side of the scorer's table ran out to meet his players, arms flapping above his head to help draw the crowd even louder.
"At that moment [I] wanted St John's fans to come to the party," Steve Lavin would say afterward. "It was wanting to jumper cable the crowd and bring some energy to our players because they deserved a pat on the back for the yeoman's effort they'd been displaying."
That yeoman's effort ended with the Red Storm routing the No. 3 team in the country here Sunday, 93-78, and with Lavin enjoying the biggest moment in eight years for both he and the long-dormant St. John's program.
The last time the Garden sold out for a regular-season St. John's game was on March 2, 2003, when Marcus Hatten hit a walk-off free throw to beat No. 6 Duke. The Red Storm hadn't beaten a team that highly ranked since, hadn't beaten the Blue Devils in seven straight meetings and had generally slunk into college basketball oblivion.
March 2003 also marked the end of Lavin's tumultuous seven-year stint as UCLA's head coach. When St. John's plucked the 46-year-old away from his ESPN analyst gig after a seven-year coaching hiatus, it had moments like this one in mind. It also eyed a return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002, a goal that became far more plausible for the Red Storm (12-8, 4-5 Big East) with Sunday's resume-inflating victory.
"It helps out a lot, confidence wise, and of course when they look at our resume," said forward Justin Burrell. "But at the end of the day it only counts as one win, so we have to go out and win more game in order to be able to play in the NCAA tournament."
St. John's remains very much a bubble team until further notice. The Red Storm came in having lost five of their last six, including a 77-53 rout at Georgetown just four days earlier. Yet they exerted their dominance from the get go, flustering the Blue Devils with full-court pressure defense, creating turnovers and relentlessly attacking the lane. By game's end, they'd outscored Duke 50-30 in the paint, scored 28 points off turnovers and shot at least 57 percent from the field in both halves.
Senior guard Dwight Hardy continually drove for layups, hitting 9 of 13 from the floor for a team-high 26 points. Forward Justin Brownlee was extremely effective as well, finishing with 20 points and nine rebounds.
"We allowed them do anything they wanted, especially early," said Duke star Kyle Singler, whose team shot 29.6 percent from the floor in the first half and made just one of its first 20 three-point attempts. "We weren't ready to go."
St. John's, on the other hand, was particularly primed. Sunday's game marked the end of a stretch of eight straight against a ranked opponent, and despite winning just two of them, Lavin ensured his players they'd been making progress. He put them through an especially arduous day of practice Friday ("We all have a lot of fat lips and swollen eyes," said forward Justin Burrell) and reminded them that the rigors of their schedule (the third-toughest nationally, according to CollegeRPI.com) had prepared them well for the challenge Duke presented.
"I focused on the opportunity," said Lavin. "Because of our travel to Alaska, travel to St. Marys, the number [three] strength of schedule in the country and our eight consecutive Top 25 opponent -- who's better prepared than us to play this game today? This was our time, our moment to have a breakthrough."
For most of the Red Storm's roster, that breakthrough had been a long time coming. Four of their five starters and eight of their top nine scorers are seniors. Before this season, they'd enjoyed just one victory over a ranked team (No. 7 Notre Dame in 2009) during their careers. They've now toppled three this season, but neither their 61-58 win over No. 13 Georgetown on Jan. 3 or 72-54 rout of No. 9 Notre Dame on Jan. 16 carried near the significance as this one, which came before a national CBS audience.
"We want to beat Duke every year, but to win it as a senior, to say you beat the defending national champions -- that's big," said forward Sean Evans. "We wanted to make it a statement game."
That statement may carry over well after Evans and his classmates move on from Queens. Lavin has wasted no time putting St. John's back on the national map in recruiting. His current class of nine signees and commitments is ranked second nationally by Rivals.com -- one spot ahead of Duke. But he'll need more wins like Sunday's before the program can truly be considered "back."
Skeptical UCLA fans would surely point out that Lavin proved more than capable of big wins during his time in Westwood (including four over top-ranked teams) but his teams rarely achieved consistency -- much like this St. John's team. They'll get a close look at Lavin's latest product in less than a week -- the Red Storm visit UCLA on Saturday for yet another showdown with a tourney contender.
Meanwhile, there will surely be those wanting to draw larger conclusions about Duke based on its woeful performance. Had the Blue Devils' 19-1 start been embellished by the mediocrity of this year's ACC? Have you noticed that several of its early-season conquests (Kansas State, Michigan State, Butler) aren't as impressive as they seemed at the time? And could you believe just how much more athletic St. John's looked?
Before jumping to any conclusions, one would be wise to look back exactly a year earlier, to Jan. 30, 2010, when Duke suffered a very similar beat down on the road against another Big East team, Georgetown. Many of us rushed to heap praise on the Hoyas and
Duke went on to win the national title. Georgetown lost to Ohio in the first round.
"[Sunday's game] speaks to Duke not playing hard today and St. John's playing beautifully," said Krzyzewski. "We weren't ready to compete. We had blank expressions on our face. Guys weren't talking. ... As a program today we did not step up to compete."
Ultimately, Sunday's result will only matter for Duke if it doesn't respond well. Otherwise its quest for a No. 1 seed and Final Four berth will continue unabated, with or without injured freshman star Kyrie Irving. ("We're not looking for him to come back, we're looking for him to get well," said Krzyzewski.)
But for St. John's, this one is huge. It could ultimately put them over the top and into the tournament. If nothing else, it goes in the record book and helps create excitement for the program. Lavin should get his share of more energized crowds.
"It's a step in the right direction," he said afterward.
As big a step as St. John's has had in nearly a decade.