St. John’s (7-3) once again shined in the second half, using solid defense, versatile scoring, and earning a 85-69 victory over previously unbeaten Northwestern in the championship game of the Holiday Festival – its 15th overall in 45 appearances, and the first since 2005.
Dwight Hardy scored 24 points and Justin Brownlee added a career-high 21 as St. John’s shot 80 percent from the field in the second half to hand the Wildcats their first loss of the season.
“It is rare to shoot 80 percent in a half so I think our players executed well in two gears, in transition when the opportunity was there and then probing for good looks,” said Lavin, who made his biggest news to date as Red Storm coach by signing an eight-man recruiting class that includes six players considered consensus top 100 players.
“It was all an indication of sharing the ball,” he added. “I thought we were crisp, in sync, playing with a high confidence level and our defense picked up in the second half. You put it together and we had a breakthrough. If you keep working there’ll be a breakthrough.”
The Red Storm came into the festival off losses to St. Bonaventure and Fordham, games where they blew double-digit leads. The opening 62-57 win over Davidson and the championship seemed to make those losses seem long ago.
“Sometimes we just have breakdowns here and there and today we had fewer breakdowns and we came up with the win,” said Brownlee, one of the St. John’s players responsible for the outstanding second-half defensive effort against the Wildcats.
John Shurna had 28 points and Drew Crawford added 17 for the Wildcats (8-1), who were trying to match their best start since 1993-94. They entered the game as one of the last nine unbeaten teams in Division I.
Brownlee was assigned Shurna and Polee had Crawford for most of the second half. Shurna, one of the best long-range shooters in college basketball, didn’t score over the final 12 and a half minutes, while Crawford had just five points in the second half, including a 3-pointer with less than a minute to play.
“I give him a lot of credit. He’s a great scorer,” Brownlee said of Shurna, one of the country’s best long-range shooters. “The best way to deal with players like that is not to let them touch the ball, so I wasn’t going to let him get it.”
Northwestern led 40-37 at halftime and it didn’t take long for the Red Storm to start hitting almost everything they threw at the basket. St. John’s hit eight of its first 10 shots from the field with a side jumper by Polee giving the Red Storm a 54-51 lead with 11:49 to play. They kept shooting — they finished 16 of 20 from the field in the second half, and the lead kept growing. Justin Burrell, who finished with a season-high 17 points, made it 75-62 with 2:56 left and most of the crowd of 5,583 started celebrating the win.
Shurna came into the game shooting 63.6 percent from the field, sixth in the country, and 61.9 from three-point range, third nationally. He finished 10 for 17 from the field, including 4 of 6 on three-pointers.
“In the first half we were scoring and they were scoring,” Carmody said. “In the second half, they just really wiped us out. We couldn’t get anything going. We were absolutely unable to stop them. Eighty percent pretty much tells the whole story. the last 20 minutes they just took control.”
Northwestern shot 29.7 percent in the second half (11-of-37). Lavin, who spent the last seven years working as a television analyst after coaching at UCLA, earned his first win over a Big Ten team since an 87-82 win at Purdue in December 2000. The Boilermakers coach was Gene Keady, Lavin’s first boss who now sits next to him on the bench as an advisor.