NEW YORK -- A quick take on St. John's 85-69 win over Northwestern in the championship game of the annual Holiday Festival at Madison Square Garden.
WHAT IT MEANS: St. John's bounced back in a big way from those two very disappointing losses to St. Bonaventure and Fordham earlier in the month, scratching out a five-point win against Davidson on Monday and then knocking off undefeated Northwestern on Tuesday to move to 7-3 on the season.
Northwestern, one of nine remaining undefeated teams in Division I coming into Tuesday night, was the best squad St. John's has faced so far this season. And this was by far St. John's most impressive performance.
"I thought coming off the St. Bonaventure and Fordham losses -- people who were at those games or heard me after the games, I was really encouraged with the progress we were making in certain areas, yet naturally disheartened that we lost the games," said St. John's coach Steve Lavin. "But I could feel a breakthrough on the horizon, and I think we've seen that in this Festival."
Northwestern falls to 8-1 on the season.
SLOW START: St. John's trailed 23-13 early, after giving up six 3-pointers in the first six minutes and 45 seconds of the game. That's been a problem for St. John's all season long -- the Red Storm were ranked No. 308 in the nation (out of 335 teams) in 3-point field goal defense coming into this game.
But the St. John's defense tightened up after that, narrowing the deficit to 40-37 at halftime, before wresting control of the game in the second half.
"What we talked about at halftime was, we're fine offensively, but we have to do a better job of getting to shooters and chasing their shooters off the 3-point line," Lavin said. "I think we put together in the second half the offense and the defense."
Northwestern -- which shot 56 percent from the field (14-for-25) in the first half -- shot just 29.7 percent in the second half (11-for-37), and 26.7 percent from downtown (4-for-15).
"In the second half, they just really wiped us out and we could not get anything going," said Northwestern coach Bill Carmody. "They were guarding us real hard and we were absolutely unable to stop them. ... They just did a real nice job."
UNCONSCIOUS! St. John's shot an incredible 16-for-20 from the field in the second half, finishing 31-for-52 for the game (59.6 percent). St. John's big three scorers all played well -- Dwight Hardy had 24 points, Justin Brownlee 21 and D.J. Kennedy 13.
But Justin Burrell was St. John's MVP of the championship game, with 17 points and nine boards in 25 minutes off the bench. Burrell, averaging just 4.7 points per game, made all six of his shots from the field, and even made five of his eight free throws.
Also, freshman Dwayne Polee played very well off the bench for the second straight night, with 10 points and five rebounds in 19 minutes.
"I took my lumps early in the season. … I wasn't letting the offense really come to me, I was more hunting for shots," Polee said. "Coach just told me to take shots in the rhythm of the offense. And so I just have to take my time and let the shots come to me."
"I think he's had a breakthrough," Lavin said of Polee. "He's a microcosm of the larger picture of our team, and we're seeing that with a number of players who are blossoming right before our eyes."
WINNING TIME: This game was all tied up at 50 with 13:31 left to play, after a layup by Northwestern's John Shurna (who was outstanding, finishing with a game-high 28 points). That's when St. John's asserted control, going on a 19-7 run to open up a 69-57 lead with 5:50 remaining, punctuated by a Kennedy flush.
Burrell was an absolute beast in the second half -- he scored 15 of his 17 points after intermission.
WHAT'S NEXT: St. John's will open up its Big East schedule at West Virginia on Dec. 29. Northwestern has a quick turnaround -- the Wildcats will host Mount St. Mary's on Thursday.
Brownlee -- who was named the Holiday Festival MVP -- sounded confident about his team heading into league play.
"I feel like we’re ready for the Big East," Brownlee said. "It was a big game for us, and also a breakthrough for us."
"We would have loved to have beaten St. Bonaventure and Fordham," said Lavin, "but we probably have arrived at a better place in getting ready for the league."