10 Broken Toes, 12 Broken Hearts

Notre Dame was on its way to its 20th victory, certain qualification for the NCAA Tournament and a possible bye in the first-round of the Big East Tournament. And then Curtis Johnson -- all 380 pounds of him -- entered the game for St. John's. What resulted was one of the more compelling stories of the season, and a excruciating loss for the Irish. IrishEyes Managing Editor Alan Tieuli reports courtside from Madison Square Garden.

Copyright by Global Electronics Telecommunications, publishers of IrishEyes.Com™

February 27, 2002

 Size Matters,
So Does Irish Loss

By Alan Tieuli
The IrishEyes.Com News Service

NEW YORK (IE) – "My god," said Mike Brey, "is he a huge guy."

Well said, and there’s your theme on this evening, one that was frustrating for Notre Dame fans, exhilarating for St. John’s supporters, and a fascinating story for all others who love Dr. Naismith’s game. Curtis Johnson, at 7-feet, 3-inches and 380 pounds, is the tallest and heaviest player in the Big East Conference. His coach says his mere presence on the floor is inspiring. In this one, he was an MVP with a curious line score.

He didn’t score a point and had four fouls in only seven minutes of play, but St. John’s would not have beaten Notre Dame, 84-81, without the play of Johnson. He lit the fuse of a second-half comeback that kept the Johnnies’ NCAA Tournament hopes alive. He also kept Irish fans on pin and needles for a few more days when it comes to post-season hopes.

"Things were going well, then he came into the game and the place went crazy," said Irish power forward Ryan Humphrey. Indeed, Notre Dame was up 51-40 with 19:12 remaining in the second-half and seemingly was in cruise control to its 20th victory. Johnson entered at 52-44 and a murmur went up from the 13,214 at Madison Square Garden. It was only the sixth appearance of the season for the lumbering giant, his first at the World’s Most Famous Arena.

When he departed – for good with 10:56 to play – it was 62-58 St. John’s. It was an 18-6 run that elicited an ear-to-ear smile from Red Storm coach Mike Jarvis and multiple standing ovations from the Garden crowd.

"What a great move by Mike," Brey said of his counterpart. "I know he hasn’t got in much. I think for them they needed something to get the blood flowing a little bit and he did that."

The victory lifted St. John’s to 19-9 overall, 9-6 in the East Division of the Big East. They have a shot to dance. Notre Dame is also 19-9, 9-6 in the West, and has had a bad week. After being mathematically eliminated from a shot at first by Pittsburgh’s win on Tuesday, the Irish now trail Syracuse by one game and a tiebreaker in the race for second (and a first round Big East Tournament bye).

"We’re resigned now to finishing third and playing on Wednesday," said Brey.

It didn’t have to be that way. Marcus Hatten was unbelievable for St. John’s – 28 points, 10 assists and six rebounds – and Willie Shaw hit a pair of huge threes in the final six minutes. Anthony Glover played like the star he was slated to be but has rarely been, notching 20 points and nine rebounds. But their significant contributions could not overcome the awkward yet inspiring performance by Johnson, a sophomore from Norfolk, Virginia who made everyone forget that St. John's had been humilated by Duke three days earlier.

"Curtis Johnson is an example of what the sport is really about," Jarvis rhapsodized later. "When you are that big and you grow as fast as he great, the body suffers. I think everybody should know that in order for him to get on the floor, it took having all 10 toes broken, pins inserted and reset, and for that to be done twice. Then he had to go into intensive training to learn how to walk again. This young man is amazing. I didn’t really expect him to help us in any way until probably his third year."

He may not help the Red Storm again, but on this night he cleanly blocked a penetration move from the Big East’s best freshman, Chris Thomas. He secured a rebound in traffic. He altered two Humphrey jumpers. Notre Dame had 19 field goals in the 22 minutes before he entered the game. The Irish had one in the seven minutes he was in. That’s an impact.

"He’s a big, big man," said David Graves, who had a record-breaking night overshadowed. "He’s not very mobile but makes up for it his size."

Graves played in his 125th game, a school record, and made his 249th career three-pointer, eclipsing Ryan Hoover’s school mark. Thomas, with 10 assists, tied the single-season mark of 214 set by Jimmy Dillon two seasons ago. But there was no joy over these achievements. The Irish locker-room was stone quiet later while the chants from the St. John’s dressing area could be heard all the way out in Jamaica, Queens.

Carroll (19 points on six-for-10 shooting in 24 minutes off the bench) had brought Notre Dame into a 66-all tie with exactly seven minutes left. But Eric King (12 points) hit a lane leaner on the ensuing St. John’s possession and Shaw hit a three after the Irish dropped an easy defensive rebound out of bounds.

Another Carroll three and a Humphrey (another outstanding effort with 29 points, 11 rebounds) tap-in made it 78-77 with 2:26 left. But another Shaw three opened things up.

Thomas (nine points on two-for-11 shooting) hit a three with 10.5 seconds remaining to bring Notre Dame within 83-81 and there was hope when Hatten made just one free throw with 9.3 seconds left. Hatten secured his own miss, but traveled and the Irish had a final possession with 6.9 seconds left.

"I thought we could weave the ball up the court (with Thomas) and get a good look," said Brey. "But they did a good job of double-teaming him." As a result, Thomas got nothing better than a 45-foot heave that hit off the top of the backboard and ticked the shot clock (making it a dead ball).

But Brey, as always, was realistic.

"We didn’t deserve the game at that point," he said. "St. John’s had earned the game at that point."

Because of Curtis Johnson. What a story.


THE NOTEBOOK: This was Thomas’ first ever visit to New York City, though it was short and there were few sites to see. The Irish arrived at their midtown hotel at 1 a.m. Wednesday and chartered back immediately after. That was just fine with Thomas who did not score a point until 9:58 remained in the contest. He still had an outstanding night distributing the ball, however. He had 10 assists and the Irish overall had 22 assists on their 26 field goals…Notre Dame finished 5-3 in Big East play on the road with the three road losses by a combined 11 points. The team’s nine losses have been by a combined 37 points…Graves hit three of his first four three-pointers, all in the first 9:46, then didn’t have another field goal. "They wouldn’t let me get past half-court," said Graves. "St. John’s is quick and athletic and they put it to us."…Hatten, a community college transfer from Baltimore, truly was remarkable. He would be a player Rick Pitino (the coach who pioneered the charting of deflected passes) would have loved to coach. He gets into the passing lanes, is not afraid to mix it up on the offensive boards, can shoot it and has solid court awareness. To IrishEyes, he is a first-team All-Big East performer. "It wouldn’t surprise me," said Graves. "You usually have to pay your dues in this league, but what he has done in his first year is amazing." Hatten leads the Big East in scoring in conference games…Carroll came off the bench for the first time in his Irish career and clearly had fresh legs, swishing four-of-five threes. "It helped having a couple of days off," he said. His right-ankle was heavily taped and iced after the game…Harold Swanagan had 11 points and five rebounds but didn’t score a point or grab a board after Johnson entered. Later in the second-half Brey tried to counter with Tom Timmermans inside and the experiment failed. Timmermans had no rebounds, a turnover and a foul in three disastrous minutes…Torrian Jones struggled offensively and lost control of the ball on a penetration move with 25 seconds left Notre Dame trailing 81-78…This corner also feels Humphrey has earned his way onto the Big East first team. He did everything he could on this night – 29 points, 11 rebounds, a key block of Hatten in the final minute, nine-of-12 free throws.

(Alan Tieuli is the Managing Editor of IrishEyes and can be reached at aatandsonspr@aol.com)

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