NEW YORK – Notre Dame was cruising as the Big East season started.
The last two games of the Irish’s 12-game winning streak were conference wins. The last two games of the season have been conference losses.
Three days after losing 65-58 to Connecticut to end the winning streak, the losing streak reached two when the No. 20 Irish fell 67-63 to St. John’s at Madison Square Garden.
“We had to make some shots to escape on the road against them,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said, referring to the Red Storm, who switched defenses to try and cut down the best three-point shooting team in the conference (41.8 percent).
The smaller lineup that played man-to-man instead of the usual matchup zone defense for St. John’s kept Notre Dame to a 1-for-9 effort from three-point range.
“Their three-point shooting is the best in the country,” said St. John’s coach Steve Lavin who was off by eight places in the national standings. “We had to stay attached to them on the perimeter and give up the interior. You can’t help on them on the perimeter.”
Brey said the tenacious defense was the difference.
“We had some looks that could have helped us maybe escape but a lot of that was their doing with their speed and them chasing us around,” he said.
The Red Storm (10-7, 2-3 Big East), who had lost two straight and four of five, had a 12-point lead midway through the second half and despite giving it all up, they managed to score the game’s final six points for the win, their third straight over the Fighting Irish.
“We knew they were going to make a run,” St. John’s forward Amir Garrett said. “In the last minutes we had to find a way to sustain the lead.”
They did and they used their mode of choice this season: the blocked shot.
St. John’s entered the game leading the nation in blocked shots at 8.56 per game. The Red Storm had nine, the two biggest on two of Notre Dame’s last three possessions in the final 20 seconds.
D’Angelo Harrison, a 6-foot-3 guard, blocked a shot by 6-10 Tom Knight and JaKarr Sampson made one of two free throws with 19.7 seconds left, Chris Obekpa, who leads the nation with 5.13 blocks per game, got his second of the game when he blocked Pat Connaughton’s drive off his head and out of bounds with 7.6 seconds left.
“He didn’t see me,” Harrison said of his third block of the game. “So I’ve been watching how these other guys block shots in practice so I contended and got the block. ... I thought it was a foul at first but I get another one on the stat sheet.
“Chris got the block after me when he blocked it off his head. He said `I got your back.’ I felt like I was a shot blocker today.”
Sampson scored 14 of his 17 points in the first half for St. John’s while Phil Greene had 13 and Garrett 11.
St. John’s, which came into the game last in the conference in free throw shooting at 61.4 percent, made 12 of 15 from the line with Sampson going 7 of 9.
Eric Atkins had a season-high 21 points for Notre Dame (14-3, 2-2), which used an 18-4 run to wipe out the double-digit deficit and take a 61-59 lead with 4:27 to play.
Notre Dame’s last lead came at 63-61 on a drive by Jerian Grant with 2:50 left.
“I loved how we fought back and gave ourselves a chance to win,” Brey said. “I think they played great and made big buckets to go along with big free throws.
“I think for us to win against anybody in this league, our offensive efficiency has to be for more than 25 minutes. We scratched and clawed.”
Harrison, the second-leading scorer in the Big East with a 20.6 average, hit a 3-pointer with 2:32 left to give the Red Storm the lead for good at 64-63. Harrison took just three shots in the first half. His only field goals of the game were 3-pointers and he finished with eight points.
Grant had 14 points for Notre Dame and Jack Cooley, who was limited to 18 minutes because of foul trouble, added 10.
“They did a good job of pressuring the ball,” Notre Dame’s Garrick Sherman said. “We really couldn’t get any offensive rhythm in the last two minutes just because of their ball pressure. ... We could have done a better job of attacking.”
“They really guarded the heck out of us with their speed and over the course of time it wore on us,” he said.
The teams play again March 5 at Notre Dame.