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Men’s Basketball: Revenge factor

Fran Tolan | Friday, February 27, 2009

On Wednesday, Notre Dame narrowly escaped with a win over lowly Rutgers for the second year in a row. Now, the Irish will try to salvage a season split against mighty Connecticut for the second year in a row.

Notre Dame has won four out of its last five games and, after dispatching the Scarlet Knights, the Irish are concentrating on the No. 2 Huskies.

Connecticut snapped Notre Dame’s 45-game home winning streak on Jan. 24, but on Saturday the Irish will get a chance for revenge in Storrs.

“We have to just concentrate on getting up there to New England and getting back Saturday and letting it rip up there against a great team,” Irish coach Mike Brey said.

Irish senior guard Kyle McAlarney added: “This is a huge opportunity and we know it’s a great opportunity for us to go out and just let it rip.”

And Irish junior Luke Harangody agreed with Brey and McAlarney.

“Saturday’s a big game but we’ve got nothing to lose; we’re just gonna go out and let it rip,” Harangody said.

See a common thread in all those responses?

Harangody said the “let-it-rip” mindset stems from Notre Dame’s underdog status heading into the Connecticut game. The Huskies are 26-2 overall and 14-2 in Big East play while the Irish are 16-11 and 7-8 against conference foes.

“Saturday’s gonna be a lot of fun. Everyone’s gonna count us out in that game so that’s why we’re just gonna go in there and go for it,” Harangody said.

The reigning Big East player of the year also said he and his teammates are looking forward to playing in front of a raucous Connecticut crowd.

“I hope to see some Notre Dame fans out there behind us. Probably not a lot because that’s a tough place to play,” Harangody said. “But I’m excited to go there … I love being the underdog, especially in an environment like that.”

The Huskies sit in first place in the Big East while Notre Dame is looking to climb closer to a top-8 seed for the conference tournament. The Irish are in tenth place but a win over Connecticut would go a long way toward improving the team’s resume. The Irish are 1-7 against opponents currently in the top 25.

“This group is pretty level-headed, they know it’s a great opportunity. It’s a big game. It’s not like we haven’t been in any big games this year…,” Brey said. “But it’s not lost on us that it’s a great opportunity.”

The last time the Irish squared off against the Huskies, Notre Dame played them close but could not take a lead late in the game. The Irish shot 35 percent from the field in the second half, including just 20 percent from behind the 3-point line.

“We played those guys well last time. I’d like to have a couple of those looks we had here, in Storrs,” Brey said. “We had some clean looks from outside.”

Harangody poured in 24 points in that contest but he was the only Irish player to score in double figures. Brey said he hopes Notre Dame’s supporting cast, especially point guard Tory Jackson, continues to play well on Saturday. Jackson had 13 second-half points to lead the Irish over Rutgers.

“I think he needs to score for us, there’s no question about it,” Brey said. “He’s gotta score the basketball for us. His first [job is] setting the table for our guys and getting us in transition.”

As Notre Dame prepares to take on Connecticut’s big, physical frontcourt, the team’s outside shooting against Rutgers may be a good omen. Jackson and McAlarney, the starting backcourt, combined to hit 5-of-9 3-point attempts.

“I can’t remember the last time I hit a three in a game, it has been a while,” Jackson said. “I felt loose and confident in my game and in my shot and it definitely helped me [against Rutgers].”

McAlarney said the Irish will be loose before taking on Connecticut, repeating the team’s apparent new slogan when asked how big Saturday’s game is.

“It’s not like our lives are on the line,” he said. “It’s obviously a huge game for us, huge opportunity. We just wanna let it rip.”

The game tips off at 2 p.m. and will air live on CBS.