The Red Storm came into the contest with No. 20/18 Notre Dame on a two-game winning streak.
Utilizing the momentum from those two matchups, as well as its renewed confidence, St. John's (13-16, 6-10 BIG EAST) upset the Fighting Irish (20-9, 12-4), 61-58.
It was the Johnnies' first victory over a Top 25 squad this season.
Leading all scorers with 22 points to go along with nine rebounds, St. John's freshman forward Moe Harkless cut a late 15-4 surge by the Irish in the second half by generating offense against a tough 3-2 zone. Harkless used a baseline drive to feed teammate freshman forward Amir Garrett (11 points, five rebounds), who did a one dribble pass back to Harkless for the and-1.
Although Harkless did not convert on the conventional three-point play, the sequence gave the Red Storm a three-point advantage, 59-56, with 56.8 seconds left in the game.
On Notre Dame's next possession, St. John's inflicted a suffocating man-to-man press that resulted in freshman swingman Sir'Dominic Pointer (four points, eight boards) deflecting a ball out of bounds. Still, on the inbounds play, Irish's sophomore guard Eric Atkins made a quick inbounds pass to senior guard Scott Martin (18 points, six rebounds), who brought the contest within one point, 59-58.
"We said we would bring up our pressure," said St. John's assistant coach Mike Dunlap. "It's probably not the smartest thing to do with only six guys. We're not conventional in what we do defensively."
With pressure high, and a program-record, nine-game win streak in conference play on the line, Notre Dame stepped up its defense, causing the Johnnies to struggle executing in the halfcourt. However, nice ball movement by the Storm opened up a driving lane for the long stride of Garrett. With one second remaining on the shot clock, Garrett scored on a runner to bring St. John's up by three points again - this time the score being 61-58 - with 8.9 seconds left on the game clock.
Garrett's play left Notre Dame with only one option: a 3-pointer to tie the contest. Fighting Irish's sophomore guard Alex Dragicevich (six points) attempted a trey from the left side with 2.2 seconds remaining in regulation that missed the mark.
"The fact of the matter is, the reason we've been able to win these three games, and close these games out where we couldn't earlier, is that Sir'Dominic Pointer, Phil Greene and Amir Garrett specifically, are growing offensively," said Dunlap. "Unless those guys improve offensively we can't win these games."
St. John's shot 46.8 percent (22-of-47) from the field, opting not to attempt 3-pointers unless there was an open look at the basket. On the other side of the ball, the Johnnies did well denying the Irish open 3-pointers throughout the game. Even when, on rare occasions, an uncontested shot opened up through Notre Dame's renowned ball movement, the Fighting Irish seemed rushed and off balance because of how the Johnnies controlled the tempo of the game with their changing defensive formations.
"Obviously, the stat sheet shows that they [Notre Dame] weren't able to make their normal 3's and that ended up being the difference in the game," said Dunlap. "Offensively, we were able to play at a pace that's slower than we usually like, but we executed through their zone. We handled that and disrupted what they wanted to do. . . . [Moe Harkless and D'Angelo Harrison] on the defensive side, along with their teammates, caused some of those misses on the perimeter."
Notre Dame came into the matchup shooting 44 percent from the field as a team, including 34.4 percent from 3-point range. And, against their last nine BIG EAST opponents, the Irish were shooting 43.9 percent from the field and 38.9 percent from beyond the arc. However, against St. John's, Notre Dame could only knock down 37.9 percent (25-of-66) of its baskets from the field, and a mere 12.9 percent (4-of-31) from long range.
St. John's led by as much as 14 points, 45-31, on a bucket by freshman guard D'Angelo Harrison (15 points, five rebounds) at the 13:11 mark of the second half. The Red Storm briefly lost their double-digit advantage when sophomore guard Jerian Grant (two points, seven assists) nailed his only field goal of the afternoon at the 11:52 mark of the second stanza. Grant came into the contest averaging 13 points.
Later, Harrison executed on a fastbreak by doing a spin move on his first defender, crossing over the second and blowing past the third for a lay-up. Harrison's great offensive display lifted St. John's to an 11-point advantage, 50-39. And, despite a basket by Irish freshman swingman Pat Connaughton (seven points), Harkless would extend the lead to 12 points, 53-41, on a 3-pointer at the 9:18 mark of the second half.
That advantage was chopped by Notre Dame, which opted to use the paint late in the second stanza instead of still relying on the unfruitful outside shot to narrow the Red Storm lead. An 11-2 run by the Fighting Irish brought the squad within three points, 55-52, on a trey by Atkins - his second field goal of the game - at the 4:54 mark. The surge was later extended to 15-4, which brought the Irish within one point of the Storm, 57-56, on a bucket by junior forward Jack Cooley (18 points, 11 rebounds) with 1:29 left in the contest.
Notre Dame never led in the matchup. Atkins, who averaged 13 points before the game with the Johnnies, finished with only five points.
St. John's held a 31-25 halftime advantage.
"We're just growing every day and I think it shows out there," said Harkless. "Earlier in the year we had trouble closing out games, as of late we've been doing a better job of closing games out."
The Johnnies hit the road to face Pittsburgh on Wednesday, Feb. 29. The game is set for 7 p.m.