NEW YORK — Coming into Sunday’s matchup against Duke, the Red Storm had played seven straight games against top-25 opponents, losing five of their last six. St. John’s head coach Steve Lavin said after the game that although his team was improving, it had been hard to see the improvement the players were making given the quality of their opponents in the second-toughest schedule in the country.
But in its crushing upset of the third-ranked Blue Devils in Madison Square Garden, the improvement of St. John’s was obvious. The Red Storm’s success started with guard Dwight Hardy and forward Justin Brownlee, who keyed their team to a successful first period and a halftime lead of 21 points.
“[St. John’s] kept poise and they made big shots…. [Hardy and Brownlee] are their best players, and they played like it today,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
The duo of Hardy and Brownlee led the veteran Red Storm team on an afternoon when St. John’s started off well and never took its foot off the gas. Hardy led his team with 26 points and Brownlee contributed 20, ultimately outplaying the Blue Devils’ own duo of Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith.
Even though Singler and Smith combined for more points—52 in total—than Hardy and Brownlee, they got little offensive support from their teammates until late in the game.
On the defensive end, Duke was unable to stop St. John’s from getting to the basket, to the point where the Red Storm did not attempt a trey after halftime.
They didn’t need to. The multitude of shots from around the rim helped St. John’s to a 58.2 field-goal percentage for the game, including 3-of-5 from 3-point range and 78 percent from the free-throw line.
“They got into the lane when we were in the zone in the first half,” Krzyzewski said. “They got into the lane when we pressed them. They got into the lane when we didn’t press them. They got into the lane when we played man.”
The Red Storm clicked on offense early, cutting, slashing and shooting its way to a 15-point lead after the game’s first 16 minutes. Going into halftime, Brownlee had a hand in seven of the points that pushed the St. John’s margin to 21 points, including two jumpers, a free throw and a long outlet pass to Paris Horne for two fast-break points.
When Duke threatened to start a late-game comeback, cutting the lead to 15 several times, Brownlee, Hardy and Justin Burrell sank free throws and found gaps in the Blue Devil defense that afforded them easy layups and dunks. And despite Smith, Andre Dawkins and Seth Curry combining for four straight 3-pointers in a 1:14 span, the Blue Devils never cut the St. John’s lead under 11 points in the final three minutes.
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Both teams identified effort as a key factor in Sunday’s outcome. For the Red Storm, fighting through the second-toughest schedule in the country finally paid off in the stunning upset over Duke. For the Blue Devils, the lack of effort contributed to a disappointing nonconference loss against a team that played outstanding basketball for 40 minutes.
“In order to beat [St. John’s] today, we would have had to show up and be ready to compete at the level we normally compete at,” Krzyzewski said. “We may not have beat them anyway, because they played really well. Hardy, Brownlee, those kids were terrific.”