It was the second ugliest opening half of the season for Mike Brey's Fighting Irish. A similar effort over Thanksgiving in Orlando was offset by solid team defense and an ice cold California team; it ended with a convincing Notre Dame win.
Sunday's slop-fest at Madison Square Garden yielded no such payoff with the Irish falling to 3-3 in conference play after a 72-54 rematch loss to St. John's.
Notre Dame defeated today's host by 15 just one week prior, a 76-61 South Bend win last Saturday. But the Irish remain a different team away from home: Big East pretenders, with just five wins in their last 20 road tilts.
The epic offensive failure that was Notre Dame's first half can be summarized in three points:
- St. John's put forth a tremendous defensive effort on the perimeter, challenging every Notre Dame dribble, daring the Irish to beat them off the bounce.
- Ben Hansbrough's 3-point shot with 16:54 remaining cut the host's lead to 6-5. The Irish committed eight fouls, suffered seven turnovers and missed six free throws before their next field goal, a layup by Scott Martin with 8:22 remaining in the opening half. Still, the shell-shocked visitors trailed just 16-8.
- Notre Dame players took 11 separate trips to the foul line in the opening stanza. They connected on both free offerings just twice – the first and last trips of the half. Intermixed were the aforementioned 10 missed free throws and resulting 26-19 deficit entering the break.
The bricklaying parade continued from the charity stripe in the crucial first 10 minutes of second stanza as Tyrone Nash, Eric Atkins, and Jack Cooley each split offerings en route to a second straight double-digit road defeat.
St. John's suffered 11 first half turnovers of their own, then again, no one accused the Red Storm of an aesthetic approach to the sport.
Head coach Steve Lavin's inspired troops were led by 14 points from guard Malik Boothe and swingman D.J. Kennedy. Both starred in an upset win over the Irish last season in South Bend; Boothe did most of his damage on the defensive end that evening, frustrating Irish guard Tory Jackson off the dribble. He performed the same task Sunday, helping to harass the normally composed duo of Atkins and Hansbrough into a combined seven turnovers.
Hansbrough paced the Irish with 18 points though nine arrived in the final seven minutes with the Irish trailing by between 13 and 18 points during his scoring span.
Exacerbating its eight-minute field goal drought of the first half was a near seven-minute field goal gap in the second as the Irish deficit grew from seven, 40-33 to 14, 55-41, during the drought's duration.
The Irish struggled for the second straight road game from long range, finishing just 3 of 15 from three-point land. Notre Dame connected on 3 of 16 deep offerings on Monday at Marquette. Brey's troops are now 13 of 52 from beyond the arc in three conference road games (all losses) vs. a 23 of 57 effort in three home wins.
The short-handed Irish have been beaten on the boards away from home as well, presently facing a 91-74 road deficit while battling to a 91-91 split in three home wins.
St. John's out-rebounded the Irish 32-21 Sunday.
Eric Atkins finished with six assists and eight points in the loss. Relevant in that his final 8-10 free throw effort helped mask the team's 19-32 performance on the game's only free shots.
St. John's improved to 11-5 with the win and 4-2 in the Big East. Notre Dame's 3-3 mark is augmented by a 14-4 record and strong pre-conference performance vs. solid if not spectacular competition.
The Irish were again without top front line senior Carleton Scott, expected to be out for the remainder of the month due to a hamstring injury suffered at Syracuse on New Year's Day.
On tap for Brey's Irish, a Wednesday date with Cincinnati in South Bend before a rematch next Saturday with Marquette.
Two home games over a four-day span…the Irish can ill afford to drop either with six road tests remaining.