Just before the final possession of a tie ballgame, the St. John’s pep band played their version of “Kung Fu Fighting”.
The events on the court at Carnesecca Arena seemed to be a case of appropriate timing for the song to be introduced in a game that Red Storm coach Steve Lavin dubbed a “rock fight.”
Lavin used that terminology to convey the message to his team following the high of Sunday’s 15-point upset of Duke and last night he witnessed a 58-56 victory over Rutgers that was decided on Justin Brownlee’s left-handed layup with four seconds remaining.
“We talked before the game and said this game would be a rock fight,” Lavin said. “It’s who brings the most boulders and the heaviest boulders and you just have to keep throwing rocks. It’s going to be played out that way.
“Backyard brawl, a rock fight, whatever title you want to give it. Even though as a coach you do everything you can to fight a letdown, we clearly did not duplicate or replicate the level of energy or offensive execution that we had against Duke.
The only thing the Red Storm (13-8, 5-5) duplicated was a victory, which was decided after Lavin drew up the final play and Brownlee perfectly executed it, doing so despite wearing a splint to protect a fractured left thumb.
From the sideline near the St. John’s bench, Malik Boothe inbounded to Brownlee, who had set a screen for D.J. Kennedy on the low block. Standing around the top of the key, the 6-7 senior rolled down the left side of the lane, capitalized on a defensive switch, rolled past Robert Lumpkins and scored.
“My hand feels good,” Brownlee said. “I don’t feel too much pain. I know I can move it. I saw that the first time was open, so I just drove it without even thinking about if my hand was hurting or anything. I was just trying to get the basket.”
“Coach just drew that up,” Paris Horne added. “Brownlee has quick feet. I knew he was going to his left. Once he got the ball, he knew it was wide open for him just to go 1-on-1. I knew he was getting to the basket or something good was going to happen.”
And when Brownlee maintained enough possession to get a basket, it ensured St. John’s avoided the trap and escaped with a win where they nearly blew a 10-point lead and almost lost despite a relentless pressure defense that turned 23 Rutgers turnovers into 21 points.
Brownlee finished with nine points, at times looking passive and reluctant after suffering the injury late in the second half when Duke’s Nolan Smith fouled him. Brownlee played 33 minutes and took just six shots but with the game on the line, Lavin wanted his second leading scorer to control the final possession in some form.
“It’s a play concept wise that makes sense because teams are going to switch,” Lavin said. “Brownlee is so effective at the high post area and he’s familiar and comfortable operating there, whether it’s in our man-to-man offensive sets in the high post or our zone attack.
“In that particular case, you want to get inside their defense and after the switch have him roll back to the ball and have him get the catch. Then I like my chances whether he pulls up a jumper or if he drives it hard to the basket.”
Brownlee’s game-winning basket was necessary because despite being offensively inept most of the night, Rutgers (12-10, 3-7) actually had a chance for the win. The Scarlet Knights were down by 10 with 6:52 remaining but tied it at 56-56 when Lumpkins hit his third three-pointer in a 72-second span.
It was the best offense Rutgers had all night with the exception of Jonathan Mitchell who scored 21 points but was bloodied after getting fouled, prompting Lumpkins’ appearance.
The Scarlet Knights committed 15 turnovers in the first half but still stayed even at 31 into halftime. Rutgers made nine more during the final 20 minutes but still had a chance because St. John’s struggled offensively by missing five straight shots before Brownlee’s layup.
“They took us out any pattern that we were strong at and made us play basketball,” Rutgers coach Mike Rice said. “They made us attack the hoop and put up numbers. Time and time again, we seem to figure it out for a two-minute stretch but we kept giving them the ball.”
And just as Rutgers appeared to figure it out, Brownlee stole a victory or a chance for five extra minutes in overtime right out from under them.