by Kevin O'Neill
After sitting on the bench with four fouls, Ben Hansbrough re-entered the game with 8:34 to play and Notre Dame leading 60-52. He lasted 10 seconds before being called for charging, and Connecticut scored the next 13 points before the Irish answered.
Down 65-60 with 4:26 left in the game, ND switched to zone, put the clamps on UConn’s offense, and rallied to a 70-67 road victory behind Ty Nash’s 7 points in the last 4 minutes. Nash also assisted Scott Martin’s jumper that tied the game at 65.
“Ty Nash stepped up and played unbelievable,” Hansbrough said after the game.
Hansbrough led the Irish with 21 points in his 27 minutes on the floor. Nash and Carleton Scott added 13 points apiece, and Tim Abromaitis scored 11. UConn’s Kemba Walker scored 34 points, but no other Husky got to double digits as the team made just one basket in the last 4 minutes, a put-back after an offensive rebound by Jamal Coombs-McDaniel with a minute left to play.
UConn had one last chance to tie after Nash made a pair of free throws with 0:08 left, but Walker’s pass to Donnell Beverly in the corner was at his feet. Beverly couldn’t control it, and Scott secured the ball and the game as the buzzer sounded.
Three Walker jumpshots and a nice post move by Alex Oriakhi staked UConn to a 10-4 lead five and a half minutes into the game; but the Irish answered with three jumpers by Abromaitis, one by Eric Atkins, and one by Hansbrough to give ND a 19-18 lead at the 10:00 mark. The teams parried for the next 8 minutes until UConn staged a mini-run to a 5 point lead with 1:21 left. Scott finally stopped the run with a short jumper, and UConn took a 36-33 lead to halftime.
Even though Hansbrough went to the bench after his fourth foul, a Walker flop away from the ball with 12:24 left, it looked like the Irish were on their way to victory after systematically building a 60-50 lead through the first 10 minutes of the second half. Then Hansbrough returned and was immediately whistled for his fifth foul. Connecticut sensed that it had new life.
Was it too early for Hansbrough’s return? Notre Dame coach Mike Brey doesn’t think so. “Ben Hansbrough is a 23-year-old fifth-year senior and I put him in on an offensive possession,” Brey said. “He’s got to be better.”
Walker scored 11 of UConn’s 13 points after Hansbrough went to the bench as the Huskies built a 65-60 lead. Nash finally made a short jump shot to stop the run. He was fouled and made the free throw to cut the lead to 2 points and, more importantly, show ND a scoring option.
ND switched to zone to stop Walker’s penetration; and it worked. UConn scored just one more basket the rest of the way, a jump shot by Coombs-McDaniel.
Meanwhile, Martin tied the game on a jumper after a nice feed from Nash, Nash drew a foul from Charles Okwandu in the post and made both free throws, and one more Nash free throw set the final margin of victory.
“I thought we did a really good job of getting low post touches,” said Brey. “We love running our offense through Ty Nash. Even if Ben is in, that’s a good thing for us because he calms us and he can pass it from there. We did a really good job of going inside-out.”
Walker played an outstanding game, but that didn’t take the sting out today’s loss and the missed opportunity to get a bye in the conference tournament. “I just wanted to win,” he said. “It would have been a big win for us, but we didn’t get it, so now we just have to look forward.”
On the other hand, Connecticut native Abromaitis was thrilled with the victory. “(Winning here) is something I needed to experience, not knowing if we’re going to play here again next year,” he said. “To be able to put it away in the end was something that was really fun for me and one of the greatest experiences I’ll have in college basketball.”
Hansbrough was just relieved. After starring for 27 minutes, he could have been the goat because his fifth foul was so unnecessary; but his teammates picked him up. “I love all my teammates and I’m was just thrilled for them to go out and get it done,” he said. “It means a lot for me.”
- If Pitt had faltered against Villanova, Notre Dame would have tied the Panthers for first place with the head-to-head tie breaker in its favor. Alas, Pitt prevailed60-50.
- Do not underestimate Atkins’ contribution to the victory. His early points helped keep UConn from running away early, and his steady ball handling was vital to the comeback late in the game. He finished with 6 points, a steal, 3 assists, and just 1 turnover in 21 minutes.
- As intense as the game was, there were very few turnovers. ND finished with 9, just 3 in the second half; and UConn only had 3 the entire game.
- Notre Dame won the rebounding battle 32-27. Abromaitis was the game’s leading rebounder with 7. Martin had 6, and Jack Cooley had 5 rebounds in 13 minutes of playing time.
- ND started its Big East road schedule 0-3. Since the loss to St. John’s at Madison Square Garden on January 16th, the Irish are 5-1 on the road. They shot 25% from three point range in those first three games and 40% from long range in the final six road games including today’s 42%.
- Today was Notre Dame’s second victory ever at Connecticut and its first in Gampel Pavilion.
- Asked if the team would be ready for the conference tournament after such an emotional victory, Hansbrough answered, “Look how we’ve been all year. We’ve never been satisfied no matter what we do. We really haven’t done anything yet.”
The Big East Tournament is next. The Irish play at 7:00PM Thursday, opponent to be determined. We’ll have a preview Thursday morning.
– Kevin O’Neill