St. John’s Upsets Duke at Madison Square Garden

NEW YORK—I’ve heard Madison Square Garden referred to as Cameron North when Duke comes to New York City. Yesterday, however, Duke was the true road team against St. John’s in the World’s Most Famous Arena, which was sold out for the first time for a regular season St. John’s game since March 2, 2003. There wasn’t an overwhelming majority of Red Storm fans (probably about 65/35), but given previous attendance splits when Duke visited it was a big step in the right direction for the St. John’s program.

This also helped give the program a boost: a 93-78 dismantling of the No. 3 Blue Devils in a game that wasn’t even as close as the score suggests. St. John’s had dropped seven straight in the matchup, its last win coming in that ’03 game.

It wasn’t easy to gauge the number of Duke supporters since they had little to cheer about. The first half was a perfect half of basketball for St. John’s. The Red Storm tied the game at six with 16:17 to go and never trailed again. They closed the half on a 22-8 run to turn a modest lead into a blowout, 46-25, at half.

If the players weren’t wearing jerseys you would’ve thought St. John’s was Duke and Duke was a bad mid-major. The Blue Devils turned it over 11 times in the first half and St. John’s converted those into 21 points. Duke shot under 30 percent, including 1-of-13 from three.

St. John’s defense was impressive—their pressing and trapping frustrating Duke throughout—but their unselfishness on offense stood out more than anything. The Johnnies had assists on 21 of their 32 made field goals. Time after time a Red Storm player passed on an open shot to get a teammate an even better look.

“We call it sharing the sugar,” first-year St. John’s head coach Steve Lavin said. “We call it the ‘one more,’ the ‘swing swing pass,’ where someone gets the ball and looks like he’s going to shoot it but he makes one more pass underneath and the guy gets a layup. There were a lot of those. We were really sharing. The ball was popping.”

The second half started with a familiar play: St. John’s getting an easy basket inside, as Paris Horne found DJ Kennedy wide open for a dunk. Two possessions later, the Red Storm pushed the lead to 25. It didn’t get closer than 17 until the 5:11 mark.

Duke, which had been 1-of-21 on three-pointers, made a desperation push with three minutes to go, hitting four consecutive from deep. But they simply traded three for two with St. John’s, and the closest margin was 11.

It was a huge breakthrough for a team that was playing its eighth consecutive game against a ranked opponent. The beginning of the brutal stretch went OK for St. John’s, as it knocked off Georgetown and Notre Dame. But the Red Storm entered Sunday’s contest having lost five of its last six and three in a row, its record just 11-8 (4-5 in the Big East). You wouldn’t have known it watching yesterday’s action, nor would you have figured Duke was 19-1.

“We were not ready to compete. We had blank expressions on our faces,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Our program didn’t do well here today.”

We must keep in mind it was just one game. As Krzyzewski said, “I think this game speaks to Duke not playing real hard today and St John’s playing a beautiful game.” Duke had a similar performance against Georgetown last season, leading many to believe the Blue Devils were a team incapable of a deep Tournament run. We all know how that turned out. “I try to coach so that we’re at our best in March and we have a chance to win a championship,” Krzyzewski said.

Steve Lavin will try to sell the St. John’s program to top recruits. (Credit: St. John’s Athletic Communications)

St. John’s, meanwhile, earned a win that may do more for the program in the long run than it will this season. The Red Storm could certainly still play its way into the NCAA Tournament, but will likely need another signature victory or two. It would be a great way to go out for the seniors, of which there are a whopping 10 on the St. John’s roster. Of the eight players who saw action against Duke, seven are seniors. The college basketball statistical website KenPom.com uses a formula that uses eligibility class weighted by minutes played to determine a team’s experience. By this measure, St. John’s is the fourth most experienced team in the country.

Lavin’s greatest strength may be as a recruiter, and he will be replacing the large group of seniors with what currently projects to be the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class. New York will certainly support a winner on the hardwood, as evidenced by the buzz surrounding the Knicks. Lavin and St. John’s may be on their way to giving the Big Apple a big-time college team as well.

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