Despite being completely frostbitten from 3-point range, the No. 20/18 Notre Dame men’s basketball team kept its head down until the final horn. This time, however, there would be no late-game heroics. A group of five fast freshmen from St. John’s defended its home turf at Madison Square Garden in New York City Saturday, picking up a 61-58 victory and ending a nine-game Fighting Irish win streak.
Head coach Mike Brey’s squad, lethargic for most of the first half, made just 4 of 31 attempts from behind the arc and was outscored 14-4 from the foul line in the defeat. The loss dropped the Irish to 20-9 overall and 12-4 in the Big East Conference. It’s the program’s first loss since dropping a road contest at Rutgers on Jan. 16.
“I think their defense really bothered us,” said Brey, who has to get his program ready for a quick turnaround against Georgetown Monday in Washington D.C, in a postgame interview with Und.com. “We didn’t shoot it well, but you’ve got to give their defense credit; they rushed us a little bit. We didn’t get the 50-50 balls until the last seven minutes of the game, and then it’s almost too late. You almost don’t deserve to win it and the basketball gods don’t let you have it, because St. John’s, I think, outworked us.”
Notre Dame figured out it needed to chip away in the paint when shots from downtown continued to miss the mark. Down 45-31 with 13 minutes to play, the Irish went almost exclusively to a point-blank attack, with a pair of Scott Martin drives, a bucket by Jack Cooley and a Pat Connaughton reverse layup. A series of solid defensive stands led to two more baskets in the lane by Martin, a tip-in by Cooley and a 3-pointer by Eric Atkins that cut the deficit to 55-52 with 4:40 remaining.
Connaughton missed a 3-pointer with a minute to go but chased down the rebound and delivered a quick pass to a cutting Cooley to make it a 57-56 St. John’s advantage. The Red Storm answered with a basket from Moe Harkless before Atkins hit Martin in the lane to stay within a point.
When the Irish needed a stop the most, however, the defense collapsed as Amir Garrett drove past Alex Dragicevich, Jerian Grant and Cooley for a layup with four seconds remaining. What would have been a game-tying 3-pointer by Dragicevich from the corner bounced off the front of the rim at the buzzer.
Playing with four fouls for the entire second half, Martin matched Cooley, who also had 11 rebounds, with 18 points. Guard D’Angelo Harrison poured in 15 points and Garrett added 11 for St. John’s (13-16, 6-10).
“I love our group; we fought and came back and gave ourselves a chance,” Brey said. “But our start — I think our energy level wasn’t as high as it needed to be. I thought maybe we had one or two more [3-pointers] in us there at the end because we had some great looks in the last seven minutes. We want guys to step up and shoot it. You’re going to have to make some more jump shots over the top of their zone because that’s what they’re giving up. We’re going to have to make more of them to steal a road win. We just couldn’t make enough.”
A backcourt that’s been able to provide an offensive spark even during the toughest shooting stretches couldn’t get much going Saturday for the Irish. Grant was 0-for-5 from behind the arc and finished with just two points. Atkins scored five points on 2-of-9 shooting. Notre Dame shot 37.9 percent (25-for-66) for the game compared to the Red Storm’s 22-for-47 effort (46.8 percent).
Notre Dame, which trailed 31-25 at the break, never held the lead, and was forced to go to the bench early in the game because of foul trouble.
“For the first time in a while we were in some foul trouble,” Brey said. “I thought Tom Knight gave us good bounce and energy, and so did Alex [Dragicevich]. It was an interesting [day]. “At key times their quickness got by us, whether we were in man or in zone. The last play was a guy getting by us to put them up by three.”
The Irish return to Washington D.C. Monday after losing to Maryland, 78-71, on Dec. 4 at the Verizon Center.
“We’ve not had to talk about how do we bounce back for a while,” Brey said. “That’s something I want to talk to our guys about. The other thing I’d like to remind them of is who we were the last time we played at [the Verizon Center] against Maryland and who we are now and to play with great poise against a heck of a basketball team. But we’re going to have to get off to a better start, and you know you’re off to a good start when you’re getting more 50-50 balls than your opponent.”
Notre Dame entered the weekend tied with Marquette for second place in the conference standings behind Syracuse. The Golden Eagles topped West Virginia Friday night and now have a game lead over the Irish. Cincinnati, South Florida and Georgetown are tied for fourth with 10-5 records. The Bearcats travel to South Florida Sunday. The top-four teams at the end of the regular season earn a double-bye in the league tournament early next month at Madison Square Garden.