"I can't believe it went by so fast," Kurz said after the game. "To finish 2 years undefeated is unbelievable."
It looked like the Big East's highest scoring offense would be true to form when the Irish opened with a pair of 3 point baskets, one by Kyle McAlarney and one by Kurz, to take a 6-2 lead. Wanting no part of a shootout, The Red Storm countered with aggressive perimeter defense and deliberate offense to slow the tempo. SJU ran the shot clock to single digits each trip down the floor as the Johnnies countered with an offensive rebound and basket by Dele Coker and a 3 point basket by Anthony Mason, Jr. to take a 7-6 lead to the first time out.
The slow pace continued through the under 8:00
time out. Notre Dame led 21-15 thanks to a Luke Zeller three and drives to the basket by McAlarney and Tory Jackson. Kurz added a fast break dunk; and Jonathan Peoples got the ball in the post, drew the defense, and passed to Zeller at the arc for his second three.
ND continued to attack the basket after the time out. Jackson and Zach Hillesland drove the lane and dished to Harangody for a pair of baskets, and Hillesland twisted his way to the hoop for another 2 points. When Harangody made a 12 foot jumper from the baseline, the Irish led 29-17. SJU managed just one basket in that sequence, a layup by Paris Horne to cut the ND lead back to 10 at the last media time out of the half.
Attacking the basket instead of feeding the post was an adjustment to the Red Storm's defense. "It was kind of hard to get it to entries," Notre Dame Head Coach Mike Brey said. "I give them credit because they pushed us out a bit. It was much harder to move the ball than it was on Sunday. When guys are up and into our shooters, it leaves driving areas and Zach and Tory give you opportunities to get in there and make plays."
The lead held through the rest of the first half, ND finishing with a 33-21 lead. Harangody, the main beneficiary of 7 assists by Jackson and Hillesland, led all scorers with 10 points. The Irish shot 61% from the field while holding St. John's to 33% shooting.
ND didn't score on its first 3 possessions of the second half while SJU had baskets by Mason and D.J. Kennedy. The Irish finally got on the board when Kurz drove the lane for a basket and drew a foul. He completed the 3 point play; and when McAlarney hit a three after a defensive stop, the Irish lead was back to double digits, 39-25.
Mason tried his best to keep the Johnnies in the game with a pair of threes, the second from NBA range against an expiring shot clock; but the Irish got a pair of defensive stops. On the first, Hillesland rebounded Horne's missed layup, dribbled to half court, and hit Jackson streaking up the left sideline. Jackson dribbled once and fed Harangody for a basket, foul, and 3 point play. When McAlarney hit a break-out three after the second stop and Ayers drove the lane for a basket, foul, and free throw, ND led 48-32.
At that point, the final score (68-55) was the only remaining issue. Harangody finished with 20 points, and McAlarney added 13. Kurz finished his last game with 15 points and a rousing ovation as he left the game with 15 seconds to play.
"A game like this was good for us as we get into the post-season because it was a half court, grind it out kind of game," Brey said. "At the 8:00 timeout in the first half, I kept talking about it and reinforcing through the game… This is good that we're in a game like this because we're going to be in games like this in March. Can we win a game like this in March when it's a single elimination situation, whether it's in New York or in the NCAA Tournament? I kept coming back to that, even in the second half."
The Irish travel to Tampa on Saturday for the regular season finale vs. South Florida. Brey said that he's concerned about a letdown, but he knows what can motivate his team. "What helps us is seeding for New York, seeding for the NCAA Tournament, and like this team (SJU), they (USF) beat our butts there last year," he said.