To get it done, they had to play perfect basketball.
To beat No. 3 Duke in a raucous environment on Jan. 30, albeit on a Madison Square Garden floor they knew well, the men’s basketball team had to be absolutely perfect.
That meant very few missed free throws, few offensive lulls, and an airtight defense forcing turnovers aplenty—as well as the transition offense to take advantage of empty Blue Devil possessions.
At the very least, this kind of basketball out of the Red Storm should have kept them in contention with Duke throughout the game. If the Johnnies snuck away with a win, it should have come because of a very close match, pitting Duke’s game against the Storm’s very best.
I don’t think anybody foresaw what actually happened—a 93-78 trouncing of the Blue Devils that was virtually over by halftime—not even Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.
“They have had outstanding games this season and this was one of them,” Krzyzewski said. “In order to beat them today, we would have had to have shown up and be ready to compete at the level we normally compete at. As a program today, we did not show up to compete.”
The Johnnies shot 57 percent from the field, forced 11 Duke turnovers and scored 22 points in the paint, carrying a 21-point lead—their largest of the half—into halftime after controlling the flow of the game from the opening minutes.
The Red Storm opened up a 25-point lead with 18:57 left in the second half, but even as Duke went on a 6-0 run a few minutes later and brought a 24-point St. John’s lead to within 11 with three minutes to play—a deficit Duke is more
than talented enough to quickly eliminate—the Johnnies put the game out of reach for good by making free throws and running the shot clock down as long as possible.
The Red Storm teams of yesteryear would have sat on their 25-point lead and just tried to run the clock out, a strategy that hasn’t worked well in the past.
That’s why, for the last 15 minutes of the game Sunday, St. John’s University held its collective breath.
St. John’s shut down some of Duke’s younger players—with the exception of seniors Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith, and junior Miles Plumlee, the other six players to record minutes for Duke Sunday were underclassmen—but as the Blue Devils attempted a comeback, the ball was put in the hands of their seniors, the cornerstones of the school’s 2010 National Championship team.
Smith had 27 points in the second half alone, hitting two 3-pointers within one minute to try and spark the comeback. Singler had 12 of his 20 points in the second half as well, and a team like
Duke is never out of a game no matter how large the deficit may be.
But for all the scoring done between the Duke seniors, St. John’s countered with seniors of their own.
Justin Brownlee, guarded mainly by sophomore Ryan Kelly, had 20 points on 7-for-13 shooting. Dwight Hardy, guarded by Smith, led the Johnnies with 26.
That’s what made the game perfect for St. John’s. The Johnnies stood up to Big Bad Duke not once—in the face of those intimidating black jerseys—did they back down.
The Red Storm held a lead against one of the toughest opponents in the country and not only pulled out a win,but crushed their competition. As bad as this team can look sometimes—and recent conference losses to Louisville and Georgetown were pretty bad—they looked pretty damned good against Duke.
The Red Storm’s win over Duke not only improved the team’s non-conference record, but it also had a hand in improving their NCAA Tournament hopes. Granted, the team had just come off three straight losses against ranked opponents, as well as losses in five of its last six entering Sunday’s game.
The win over Duke now gives St. John’s three victories this season against ranked opponents, with about half the conference schedule left to play.
“I don’t think it’s ever happened,” head coach Steve Lavin said of his team’s current stretch of eight consecutive games against ranked opponents. “I’ve had teams that have played 12 Top 25 opponents stretched out, but the odds of drawing eight consecutive, from a mathematical probability. It’s got to be one in a zillion.”
St. John’s didn’t just beat Duke Sunday, they beat defending National Champion Duke. That, even more than Duke having been ranked, speaks volumes on the Red Storm’s at-large hopes.
Of course Duke came unprepared Sunday—the Blue Devils expect to reach the NCAA Tournament every year. Their season starts in March. If the Red Storm reach March Madness, it would be considered, around campus, almost as highly as another national title for Duke.
As the sellout crowd of 19,353 had begun to file out of the stands, one Duke fan turned back to the court and yelled, “We’ll see you come March!”
With another big win under their belts, the Johnnies just might.