A Notre Dame men’s basketball team with major postseason aspirations must first address the litany of shortcomings that have been exposed over the last four days. After dropping its first Big East Conference contest at home Saturday, which snapped a 12-game win streak, the No. 20 Fighting Irish limped out of New York City Tuesday night following a 67-63 loss to St. John’s.
Eric Atkins' game-high 21 points weren't enough to avoid a frustrating loss at St. John's for Notre Dame's second-straight Big East defeat
For whatever reason, Notre Dame’s regular-season troubles at Madison Square Garden over the last two decades continued with an underwhelming effort against the Red Storm (10-7 overall and 2-3 in the Big East). The Irish (14-3, 2-2) established a three-point lead before senior forward Jack Cooley, the engine that propels the squad, picked up a second foul with 8:45 to play in the first half. He sat for the remainder of the half and could only watch as St. John’s, the worst free-throw shooting team in the league, converted on most of its opportunities to snag a 32-31 lead at the break.
Senior center Garrick Sherman failed to produce while Cooley spectated, so head coach Mike Brey turned to senior Tom Knight, who helped the Irish outscore the Red Storm 44-24 in the paint for the game. When Cooley was called for a third foul four minutes into the second half, Knight played the rest of the way and finished with six points, four blocks and three rebounds. Why Cooley never made another appearance wasn’t explained by Brey in an interview with UND.com after the game, but it likely had something to do with his three turnovers.
A D’Angelo Harrison 3-pointer with under 11 minutes to play in the game boosted St. John’s lead to 55-34. The Irish, led by junior point guard Eric Atkins’ game-high 21 points, rallied back with an 18-4 run to regain the lead (61-59) with just over two minutes to play. But another Harrison bomb from beyond the NBA 3-point arc gave the Red Storm the advantage for good.
“I think they guarded us,” said Brey, whose team shot 47.1 percent (24-for-51) from the field and finished 1-for-9 from 3-point land. “We weren’t able to get into a consistent offensive flow. You’ve got to probably score more to get out of here with a win. I thought they were really good offensively at key times. We needed a little more offensive efficiency for longer periods like we had at times.”
The Irish certainly didn’t get much from anyone other than Atkins and Grant, who added 14 points but turned the ball over six times. Cooley finished with just 10 points in 18 minutes, and sixth-year senior Scott Martin missed his two shot attempts for a goose egg. Freshman Cameron Biedscheid continues to show he’s not afraid to take big shots, but is still learning which ones to take and which ones to pass up after going 0-for-4 from deep.
Knight’s performance, however, was good enough to keep a Cooley-less team in the game, and Brey’s patience with Sherman seems to be running out.
“I think that’s something to build on with him,” Brey said. “He gave us energy and bounce, and he’ll be the first big off the bench on Saturday (at home against Rutgers). We’ve got to cultivate that. Our backs are against the wall. You lose two in a row … we need three good days of hard practice to get ready for Saturday.”
St. John’s bench outscored Notre Dame’s reserves 15-11 and had a 15-8 rebounding advantage on the offensive glass, leading to a 13-2 discrepancy in second-chance points. The Red Storm made 12 of 15 free-throw attempts (nearly 20-percent higher than their league-worst season average of 61.4), and ended the night 26-for-62 (41.9 percent) from the field and 3-for-17 from 3-point land.
Forward Jakarr Sampson paced the Red Storm, which ended a two-game skid, with 17 points, followed by Phil Greene’s 13 and Amir Garrett’s 11.
“I think this group has a great sense of itself and ownership of itself,” Brey said. “More than half of it will be them wanting to do better. We’ve got to help them and put them in some better positions and look at our rotation at times.
“… I’d like to see us play a good 40 minutes; we haven’t done that the last two games.”