SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- As the Big East basketball regular season winds down, Notre Dame is positioning itself for a postseason run.
The 24th-ranked Irish (23-7, 11-6 Big East) overcame a slow start and injected some life into their offense to pull away for a 66-40 victory over St. John's Tuesday night.
Jerian Grant scored 21 points to lead the Irish attack. Eric Atkins added 18 and senior Jack Cooley, playing his last game at Purcell Pavilion, celebrated with a double-double, 12 points and 14 rebounds.
JaKarr Sampson scored 12 for St. John's and Phil Greene had 10.
The end of the game was marred by a fight between Notre Dame freshman Cameron Biedscheid and Sir'Dominic Pointer of St. John's. Coming out of a timeout with 1:46 left and the Irish up by 26, the two were jostling before the ball was inbounded. Suddenly, fists started flying.
Both were ejected. Also, Amir Garrett of St. John's was booted for leaving the bench.
Biedscheid and Pointer will both miss their team's next game. A ruling hasn't been made on Garrett.
St. John's (16-13, 8-9) was playing its second game without leading scorer D'Angelo Harrison. The 6-foot-3 sophomore, the conference's second-leading scorer (17.8 points a game), was suspended by coach Steve Lavin for conduct detrimental to the team.
The Red Storm lost their first game without Harrison last Saturday, 62-59, to Providence.
Tuesday's attempt to make up for Harrison's offense was a struggle. St. John's scored 26 points in the first half, but managed just eight through the first 14 minutes of the second.
After a sluggish first half, Notre Dame shot an amazing 68 percent (17 of 25) in the second half, while the Red Storm limped in at 19 percent (5 of 27).
A Grant 3-pointer to end the first half ignited a 41-8 run that carried the Irish to victory.
"Thank God there was a second half," said Irish coach Mike Brey. "Our guards (Grant and Atkins) ran the whole building tonight. They probably took tickets and sold popcorn. When our guards play like that, I just sit down, shut up, and let them do whatever they want."
"Coach wanted us to get out and run and get some good looks," said Grant. "When we run, we get our best looks."
That running changed the entire tempo of the game."
"We really got into a nice rhythm," said Atkins. "We were being aggressive off the pick and roll. We got some easy buckets in transition."
On the other side of the floor, Lavin was discouraged with the way his team responded to a halftime lead.
"Our defense in the second half was so poor," Lavin said. "We need to demonstrate competitive spirit and competitive fire in a practical way on the floor.
"It was probably the most dominant second half of basketball that we have faced from an opponent this year."
Notre Dame made its run midway through the second half, outscoring St. John's 15-6 to grab a 43-34 advantage with about 10 minutes to play.
A 3-pointer by Grant and five points by Cooley in that stretch paved the way for the breathing room.
Once the Irish found their stride, the outcome was hardly in doubt. Another eight-point burst was enough for Notre Dame to go up by double figures, sending the Irish to their 11th league victory.
Listless was a kind way to describe what happened in the first half.
St. John's had a late flurry that broke up a see-saw battle and allowed the Red Storm to spurt to a seven-point lead just before intermission. A 3-pointer by Atkins right before the break cut the St. John's lead to 26-22.
Only four Notre Dame players scored in the first half, led by Grant with 10. He also had four assists. The Irish struggled, hitting just 28 percent (8 of 29) from the field.