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Okafor, Huskies defense stifle Irish in 61-50 loss

Andrew Soukup | Monday, February 23, 2004

When Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun walked into the interview room after his team lost to Notre Dame on Feb. 9, he criticized his team’s lack of composure and inability to contain the Irish offense.No such criticism was needed Saturday, not after his Huskies unleashed a stifling defense against Notre Dame by holding the Irish to a season-low 29.7 field goal percentage. Combine Notre Dame’s scoring woes with the Huskies’ dominant rebounding advantage, and No. 8 Connecticut (21-5, 9-3 in the Big East) avenged its loss to the Irish two weeks ago with a 61-50 win that snapped a three-game Notre Dame (13-10, 7-6) win streak.With Torin Francis sidelined for the third straight game, the Irish had no answer for the Huskies’ Emeka Okafor, who finished with 14 points, a career-high 22 rebounds and seven blocks. He anchored a Connecticut defense that pressured the Irish all afternoon, out-rebounded the Irish 59-30 and rarely gave Notre Dame an open look at the basket. Only Chris Thomas, who finished with 13 points, made more than five field goals.A relentless Connecticut defense never really gave the Irish offense a chance to get going. Notre Dame didn’t score its first points until Jordan Cornette drained a 3-pointer with 13:35 left in the first half (ending a 10-0 Huskies run to start the game), and only two players reached double-digits – Thomas and freshman Colin Falls, who finished with 10 points. Notre Dame made just two of its first 17 shots and ended the first half with a season-low 19 points.Despite their offensive woes, the Irish were never completely out of the game. Although the Irish trailed by as much as 15 points, they closed the deficit to within four points three times in the second half, the last time coming on Thomas’ jumper with 8:49 left to make the score 46-42.But the Huskies then went on an 11-2 run to put the game out of reach, and after Thomas’ jumper Notre Dame only made three field goals the rest of the way.It seemed as if every loose ball and every rebound ended up in the hands of a Connecticut player. No Irish player had more than five rebounds, while four Huskies had more than six. Connecticut’s top two rebounders – Okafor and forward Josh Boone – combined for three more rebounds than the entire Irish squad, and the Huskies had nearly as many offensive rebounds (23) as Notre Dame had total rebounds (30).That meant the Irish would have to shoot their way past the Huskies’ tough defense. But Notre Dame only connected on 25 percent of their 20 3-point attempts. And in the face of an inspired Connecticut defensive performance that shut down the potent Irish offense, that wasn’t enough to win.