Then halftime struck, St. John's unraveled, and Notre Dame punched back.
In a second-half marred by a mid-court brawl that resulted in the ejection of three players and future suspension of at least two, Notre Dame eviscerated St. John's, outscoring their visitors 44-14 en route to a 66-40 victory.
"Thank God there was a second half," said Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey. "I am thrilled how we defended in the second half and got into an offensive rhythm. We were able to get out in transition and not have to play against a set defense. I thought we were great in our zone, being able to jam it up and keep it to one and done."
It was the best half of the season by the Irish, an opinion shared by St. John's head coach Steve Lavin.
"In the second half they really just pounded us," Lavin said. "Just a dominating second half of basketball. It was probably the most dominant second half of basketball that we faced from an opponent this year."
The second-half surge began near the conclusion of the first, when Irish junior guard Eric Atkins drilled a three-point shot from the right wing, cutting the Red Storm's lead to four, 26-22 entering the break.
"I remember looking up and being down seven and thinking that was tough," said Atkins of the situation prior to his clutch triple. "It was just confidence going into the half. It was a huge shot going into the half and we just built upon it."
Thereafter Notre Dame thrashed the overmatched Johnnies on both ends, limiting Lavin's group to a 5 of 27 shooting performance including 0-9 from long range. St. John's 40 total points is the fewest scored against a Notre Dame team in its 18-year Big East existence. Brey's bunch previously set the record (42) vs. Pittsburgh on February 18, then bettered it (41) vs. Cincinnati February 24.
"We did a really good job of packing it in, and they didn't really have enough shooters to spread us," said Brey.
The Irish dominated on the offensive end thanks to the play of Atkins and his backcourt mate Jerian Grant. The pair combined to score 36 points with 15 assists vs. two turnovers.
"Our guards ran the whole building tonight," said Brey. "They probably took tickets and sold popcorn. When our guards play like that, I just sit down and shut up and let them do whatever they want."
Their effort opened up the court for senior center Jack Cooley who, after a scoreless first on the heels of a scoreless, flu-ridden outing at Marquette, rebounded for 12 points and 13 boards in his final home contest.
"We always play well in the second half in this building. That's just what happens," offered Cooley. "We took it upon ourselves to play more of a team game…when we passed the ball around and cut, and ran our plays, everything worked out fine."
Notre Dame's final 21-minutes include runs of 10-0, 32-8, and finally 47-12 as St. John's failed to stem the rising Irish tide. The Red Storm managed just four field goals over a 16-minute span as the Irish turned a seven-point deficit into a 25-point lead.
Rumble and RepercussionIts still unclear how the fight began but the following is clear: with 1:46 remaining in the contest, combatants Sir'Dominic Pointer (instigator or not, he threw the first punch) and Irish freshman Cameron Biedscheid (a retaliatory punch) will be suspended for their teams' next games for throwing punches. By league rule, an ejection for fighting means the offending student-athletes will miss the team's next game.
Further discipline could await St. John's players, notably Amir Garrett who was ejected for leaving the bench.
"When I asked my assistants they said it started on the foul line prior to that next possession," said Lavin of the Pointer/Biedscheid altercation. "That they were (trash) talking on the foul line at the lane. But I didn't get to see any of it (other than the resulting scrum).
"I didn't get to see anything, so I want to speak in some informed and intelligent manner. I just saw a bunch of players out on the court."
Notre Dame players had no comment on the brawl, one broken up eventually with the help of Cooley -- who was headed to the bench for a senior day salute when the fight occurred -- holding back Biedscheid while several Red Storm players corralled Poynter.
Poynter had previously been issued a flagrant foul at the 5:05 mark of the second half for an away from the ball slap of Tom Knight's head.
"I really didn't see it," said Brey of the punches thrown. "It's unfortunate it happened. Guys have to defense themselves and I thought he did. It's unfortunate now Cam will have to sit out of the Louisville game under the rule. I thought everyone felt bad that it happened…I'm glad our guys didn't escalate it and have anyone come off the bench."
Now 11-6 in league play, Brey's Irish conclude the season at Louisville Saturday afternoon, a game to be televised nationally at 4 p.m. (ET) by CBS. A Notre Dame win coupled by a Syracuse loss this week to either DePaul or #5 Georgetown would give the Irish a double bye in next week's Big East Tournament.