SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP)—Notre Dame coach Mike Brey can’t think of anyone playing better in the Big East right now than Ben Hansbrough.
Considering some of the players the Big East has, that’s a pretty bold statement. Hard to argue, though, after the week Hansbrough had.
Hansbrough scored 12 of his career-high 26 points from 3-point range Saturday, leading No. 14 Notre Dame to a 76-61 victory that ended St. John’s five-game winning streak and gave the Red Storm their first conference loss. This four days after he helped slow down Kemba Walker in an upset of Connecticut.
“He sets a great tone for us because of his strong personality of defending and he truly takes pride in that,” Brey said. “He’s not only typically playing the whole game for us, but he’s scoring and going for the jugular on teams to put them away. And then he uses a lot of energy to lead and set the tone and get us focused.
“I don’t think you can’t ignore what he’s been doing.”
Tim Abromaitis and Scott Martin added 12 each for the Irish (14-2, 3-1 Big East), and Abromaitis had nine rebounds. Notre Dame improved to 11-0 at home, delighting the Joyce Center crowd that turned out despite a storm that dumped nearly 3 feet of snow on the South Bend area.
Justin Brownlee led St. John’s (10-4, 3-1) with 17 points and seven rebounds. But unlike the last five games, when four players averaged double figures, he didn’t get much help. Dwayne Polee II (12 points) was the only other player in double figures, and St. John’s shot just 38 percent, well below the 52 percent it shot during its winning streak.
Dwight Hardy, who scored 20 or more in St. John’s previous four games and had 16 against the Irish last year, was held to just eight points. It was only the third time this season he failed to reach double figures.
“(Hardy) beat us here last year and hit some big-time threes,” Hansbrough said. “This year, it’s a different team and we came out throwing the first punches. We just kept the lead the whole game and imposed our will on them.”
St. John’s showed glimpses of the team that was once a Big East powerhouse during its winning streak, taking two straight on the road and knocking off a ranked team, Georgetown, for the first time in two years. But Notre Dame quickly squelched any hope the Red Storm had of extending the run as Hansbrough made three 3-pointers in 2 1/2 minutes to give Notre Dame an 18-7 lead with 11:45 left.
“It was very important to get off to a good start because we knew they were feeling good, riding high, playing well,” Brey said. “We’ve been pretty successful in this building and you want to make the opponent think, `Not tonight.”’
Brownlee got St. John’s within single digits on a hook shot, but Eric Atkins responded with the shot of the night. With the shot clock ticking down, Notre Dame couldn’t get an open look around the basket and the ball got kicked out to Atkins, who coolly drained a 3 as the buzzer sounded.
Brownlee answered with a 3 of his own to pull St. John’s within 29-20 with 6:11 left. But the Irish finished the half with a 15-5 run and the Red Storm never got within single digits again.
“We made a lot of mistakes on offense, a lot of quick shots,” Brownlee said. “We just weren’t ourselves tonight.”
The Red Storm did manage to pare Notre Dame’s lead to 13 with 14 minutes left to play. But St. John’s coach Steve Lavin had to sit Polee and D.J. Kennedy after each picked up his third foul early in the second half.
“You look back long enough so you can learn and then move forward,” Lavin said. “Stay in the present, stay in the moment and get ready for Syracuse. In this league, you can’t allow one loss to bleed into two or three.”