NEW YORK – It didn't take long for Big East Conference opposition to expose Notre Dame's Achilles heel.
"In this league," said senior forward Zach Hillesland, "life or death is rebounding."
In a startling early-season development, the Irish were mugged in Manhattan by a team that played nothing but underclassmen. St. John's, coming off a 21-point conference opening loss to Providence on New Year's Eve, was the aggressor from start to finish Saturday afternoon and upset the temporarily No. 7 ranked Irish, 71-65.
The Red Storm (10-4 overall, 1-1 Big East) beat Notre Dame (10-3, 1-1) off the glass, 41-30. It also extended its defense effectively enough to hold the Irish to a season-low four three-point field goals.
If not for a 28-point, 14-rebound effort by Luke Harangody, Notre Dame looked more like a representative from the Northeast Conference, rather than a Top 10 presiding Big East unit.
"This is life in the Big East," said head coach Mike Brey, perhaps giving a little too much credit to the opposition. "A one-game winning streak in the Big East is huge."
But St. John's should have been a team the Irish should have slapped into place. It is a long, athletic, quick squad, but it rotates two freshmen point guards and its best player (senior Anthony Mason Jr.) is out for the season after foot surgery.
The Red Storm had also been beaten by double digits in Madison Square Garden in December by Virginia Tech and Miami ( Fla. ).
No excuses. This was a bad loss. And the players acknowledged it.
"It's hard to get into a good flow when you are not rebounding," said senior guard Kyle McAlarney, who was held to 10 points, with just one three-pointer. "We didn't deserve to win with the effort we gave."
Players like Justin Burrell (18 points, six rebounds), D.J. Kennedy (20 and 10), Paris Horne (14 points and terrific perimeter defense), and Rob Thomas (10 points off the bench) will all make names for themselves in the Big East before they are done. But this is supposed to be Notre Dame's time and this unquestionably qualifies as a bad loss. Particularly when you can consider what comes next.
If current form holds, the next 10 games will be, tangibly, the most difficult scheduling stretch in the history of Notre Dame basketball. The Irish will play eight of the 10 against programs currently ranked in the Top 25 of the ESPN/USA TODAY rankings, starting Monday at home versus Georgetown .
"Maybe it's good we have (Georgetown ) right away," said McAlarney. "The best thing would be to just flush the memory of this one."
There is no such desire in the borough of Queens . The mood in the bowels of Madison Square Garden post-game was celebratory, with plenty of St. John's playing alumni sharing hugs and high-fives with the winning team. The most visible link with the past was legendary coach Lou Carnesecca.
"We've been waiting a long time for this," Carnesecca said as he embraced Burrell, a 6-8 sophomore who played six inches higher than the Irish most of the day.
"We never came out to meet them," Irish junior point guard Tory Jackson (14 points, three assists) said. "We let them control us and they outjumped us."
Notre Dame had an early 15-7 lead, but St. John's quickly drew even when Thomas came off the bench after the first media timeout and scored three quick baskets. The game stayed virtually even through the half – the teams exchanging leads nine times – before the Red Storm left the court with a 35-34 intermission lead.
A respectable crowd of 9,807 at the World's Most Famous Arena may have been skeptical that its long downtrodden (last NCAA appearance: 2000) hometown heroes were going to be in it until the end. But after Horne provided the lasting image of the day – an athletic tip-in with just over eight minutes to play – it was 58-50 Johnnies and Notre Dame was officially in big-time trouble.
Harangody – of course – brought the Irish back, scoring seven points in just over a minute to bring ND within 60-57. Notre Dame though could never draw even – even with McAlarney on the line for two down two points with 4:30 left.
The senior marksman, perfect at the line this season previously (16-for-16) rimmed out the first -- a cruel irony, indeed, considering that hundreds of Staten Islanders were in the third tier of the Garden, cheering his every move.
McAlarney also missed a big three from NBA range with about 100 seconds left, down one. Harangody failed on a contested lay-up down five with 1:06 left. The virtually invisible Ryan Ayers (1-for-5 in 27 minutes) rimmed out a pair of threes with 30 seconds left, either of which could have cut the deficit to two.
It was St. John's that had the onions in the final minute, Kennedy hitting four consecutive foul shots in the last 15 seconds to seal the victory.
"We can't work on block out drills for two hours (Sunday)," said Brey. "We got to watch film and get ready for Georgetown."
A victory versus the Hoyas might salve the wounds from this terrible weekend in the Apple. Maybe.
"We all got to do a better job of putting a body on our man," said Harangody. "Me included."
(Alan Tieuli is the Editor-In-Chief of IrishEyes Magazine and can be reached at Tieuli@aatandsonspr.com)