Men’s Basketball: Northwestern suffers first loss 85-69 to St. John’s

Jonah L. Rosenblum

NEW YORK — Northwestern entered the locker room Tuesday night up by three, just 20 minutes away from winning the Madison Square Garden Holiday Festival Championship, yet the Wildcats were unable to maintain their halftime lead against a physical St. John’s team, falling 85-69.

“In the first half, they were scoring and we were scoring,” coach Bill Carmody said. “Then, the second half, they really wiped us out. We couldn’t get anything going.”

And so despite 28 points from junior forward John Shurna, NU found itself watching as the Red Storm celebrated a win that had looked to be in the Cats’ grasp. By the time “New York, New York” played over the public address system, NU was nowhere to be seen.

NU entered Tuesday’s game with the top scoring offense in the Big Ten, yet their offense was unable to produce in the second half against St. John’s. Normally one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the country, the Cats couldn’t hit from anywhere in the final 20 minutes, shooting 30 percent from the field and just 27 percent from behind the arc.

“In the first half, we were giving them too many open looks and fouling them too much,” Red Storm forward Dwayne Polee said, “so we just tried to play them honest and bring some help towards them.”

St. John’s was particularly effective in bottling Shurna up towards the end of the game. The Red Storm managed to hold the Big Ten’s scoring leader without a point for the last 12:49.

And while St. John’s was able to pound the paint relentlessly, NU was unable to get anything going inside. Although junior center Luka Mirkovic grabbed 11 rebounds, he made just 1-of-6 shots from the field, while backup center Davide Curletti missed 3-of-4 free throws off the bench and scored just one point.

“Our production from the center position has not been great,” Carmody said. “We have to figure out a way that we can help them score down there and be more productive. We do OK on the perimeter. We just need to get a little more balance.”

As the offense hit a low, the defense found itself entirely out-matched by the Red Storm. St. John’s hit 16-of-20 shots in the second half, and generally exploited the Cats’ 1-3-1 zone by successfully working the ball into the paint.

The Red Storm’s physical advantage extended itself to the boards, as St. John’s out-rebounded NU by six.

“Just a little bump in the road,” senior point guard Michael “Juice” Thompson said. “We lost and now we just have to get that focus back.”

NU had that focus early on Tuesday. After blowing out St. Francis in the first round of the four-team tournament, the Cats appeared to be on their way to another easy victory, taking a 10-point lead over St. John’s just seven minutes in.

With NU leading by six midway through the half, freshman guard JerShon Cobb streaked towards the hoop looking to expand the Cats’ lead, but a hard intentional foul by Red Storm forward Justin Brownlee changed the course of the game.

The foul sent Cobb to the floor, and although he would return later, he was never the same, according to his coach.

“He tried to come back,” Carmody said. “It just wasn’t good and it was starting to really bother him, so the trainers told me he was out.”

With Thompson also on the bench with two early fouls, the Cats had a hard time getting anything going, and the Red Storm went on a 14-2 run.

“Juice is our senior leader,” Shurna said. “He’s our best player. He’s our point guard, and runs the offense, so anytime you get someone out of the game that facilitates the game so well, it’s going to be much more difficult.”

The two teams stayed close from the end of the first half through the beginning of the second. After the Red Storm scored five consecutive points to take a 50-45 lead, Shurna responded with six straight points to give the Cats the lead, but those would mark Shurna’s final tallies of the game, as well as NU’s last lead.

From there on out, St. John’s was completely in control, taking a 13-point lead with 5:25 remaining.

A 3-pointer by sophomore guard Alex Marcotullio put the Cats within eight with five minutes remaining, but a matching 3-pointer by Brownlee a minute later clinched the game. After the shot, Brownlee turned around and pumped his fist emphatically to the home crowd’s delight.

“I was just feeling like it’s time to put them away,” Brownlee said. “It was a close game most of the game and that shot I felt like was a dagger for them.”

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