Cunniff’s Corner: Johnnies Showed Fight in Loss to Duke

With time winding down in St. John’s 83-76 loss to Duke on Jan. 28, freshman  forward Moe Harkless threw the ball down the court in frustration.


It was an act that was very out-of-character for the usually stoic Harkless. Harkless rarely gets too high or low emotionally when he plays and doesn’t tend to draw attention to himself – even his occasional chest pounds after big plays come across as more personal motivation than attention-grabbing displays.


There was nothing for Harkless to be ashamed of in his display against the Blue Devils. He was virtually unguardable all night, finishing with 30 points and 13 rebounds and nearly leading his team to a most improbable comeback against the No. 6 team in the nation.


But this was no moral victory for Harkless.


“I was angry,” he said. “I wanted to win the game.”


If another player had chucked the ball at the end of a game like Harkless did, I probably would have dismissed the display as petulant and immature. It’s not very becoming of the University to see players throwing their toys around when it’s time to clean up.


But Harkless is different. He’s been the most mature and poised player on a team full of mature and poised players. (at least, they’re mature and poised compared to most freshmen We know that he’s even-keeled. What we didn’t know was the depth of his competitive spirit. That spirit – which is shared by all of his teammates – kept him going when St. John’s was down 22. It’s why just staying competitive with Duke doesn’t satisfy him and the rest of the team. And it’s why the St. John’s men’s basketball team is destined for success.


In October, I wrote that if the team wa still as close-knit in March as they were at the Red Storm Tip-Off on Oct. 14, then we would know that they were a special group. Well, it’s only February, but I’ve already seen enough – this team is the real deal.


It may be hard to see on the court sometimes (see if you can watch the first half at Duke or the last six minutes of regulation against Villanova without cringing), and it may be hard to see the positives when so much negativity has surrounded the program this season.


Indeed, a lot of St. John’s fans are waiting for the other shoe to drop. So much has gone wrong this season that fans can’t bear to be optimistic. They’re waiting for Harkless to depart for the NBA after this season (unlikely). They fear that Amir Garrett will decide to make baseball his full-time job (won’t happen yet). They think that someone is going to get fed up with losing and transfer (already happened. Good luck winning national championships at Rider, Nurideen Lindsey).


I’ll admit, I was skeptical of the direction the program was in after Lindsey transferred. It came at the end of a week-long period in which the team was embarrassed at Kentucky (the game that freshman guard D’Angelo Harrison said the team would find out who they were) and then outplayed by mid-major Detroit Mercy. It was similar to the period last season when the team lost to St. Bonaventure and Fordham back-to-back, except with more negative turmoil off the court.


If that was the Red Storm’s low point, this past week and a half has been their high. They played well for 34 minutes against Villanova, and then blew out an NCAA Tournament-bound West Virginia, before putting a real scare into Duke down the stretch.


The Duke game could very easily have gone the other way and become a rout. There’s no better way to kill a team’s momentum and cause players to start questioning themselves than getting blown out. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Lindsey decided to transfer less than a week after the Kentucky debacle. And down by 22 to a top-10 team on the road, most teams would have packed it in and started looking forward to DePaul.


“There’s absolutely no meaning when you assimilate or assemble a team for the first time together,” assistant coach Mike Dunlap said earlier in the season. In other words, bringing all the blue-chip talent in the world doesn’t matter if the players don’t come together as a unit. See the 2011 Miami Heat for confirmation. That type of “team” packs it in against Duke and loses by 40.


Harkless and Harrison wouldn’t let that happen though. Like Greg Jennings with a broken leg, they “put the team on they back, do,” and nearly carried the Johnnies to the most unlikely comeback in school history. Their teammates did their part, too, making sure to get them the ball at every opportunity. They held one of the best offensive teams in the nation without a field goal for the last six minutes of the game.


That tells me all I need to know. We already knew they had the talent. We didn’t know if they had the drive, the perseverance and the competitive drive to keep on in the face of insurmountable odds. They answered those questions emphatically in the second half against Duke.


The most encouraging thing: almost wasn’t good enough. They refused to settle. Hence, Harkless’ end-of-game reaction.


I don’t have a crystal ball, obviously. But in the spirit of the ever-hilarious Republican primaries, I’m going to proclaim (perhaps prematurely), on Feb. 1, 2012, that it is “Morning in the St. John’s Men’s Basketball Program” again. And it was Harkless’ chuck that convinced me.