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Men’s Basketball: Irish fall to No. 2 Connecticut after back and forth contest

Greg Arbogast | Monday, March 2, 2009

It wasn’t a game Notre Dame was expected to win, nor was it a game the Irish had to win to keep their NCAA Tournament hopes alive. That’s about the best Notre Dame can do to console themselves after coming up just short of a season-defining win Saturday afternoon at No. 2 Connecticut.

Poor shooting, questionable free-throws and too much Connecticut frontcourt power were just enough to put the Irish on the wrong side of a 72-65 score.

“I think we still have a shot [at the NCAA tournament],” senior guard Kyle McAlarney. “We’ve been recovering from losses from this all year. This isn’t a game where a loss knocks us out. A win would have propelled us, but we can still recover from this.”

Recovering from Saturday’s loss will require mentally overcoming what was ultimately a valiant effort that came up just short.

After a see-saw second half in which no team opened up greater than a six-point lead, Notre Dame found themselves down 66-65 with 59 seconds remaining after a Luke Harangody layup. On the ensuing Connecticut possession, Huskies 7-foot-3 center Hasheem Thabeet was fouled hard by the 6-foot McAlaraney.

Thabeet went sprawling to the floor and remained on the ground for a short period before declaring himself incapable of shooting his earned free throws. Thabeet, a 63 percent free-throw shooter who was 2-for-6 from the line on the day, was replaced by guard Jeff Austrie, a 76 percent free-throw shooter. Austrie knocked down both free throws while Thabeet watched from the bench.

“If [Thabeet] faked it, I’m glad” Huskies coach Jim Calhoun joked. “Because I never thought he was that sophisticated about the game.”

Still with a chance to tie, the Irish got the ball into the hands of McAlarney, who fired a long three with a hand in his face. The shot was on line but hit the front iron. Huskies guard Kemba Walker grabbed the rebound, and Connecticut made its free throws down the stretch to ice the game.

“We gave ourselves every opportunity to win in a tough place against a heck of a team,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “I’m proud of our group. Connecticut made some big, big plays and some big buckets.”

That Notre Dame even had a chance to force overtime at the end seemed unlikely early in the first half. Led by Thabeet, the Huskies blocked six Irish shots in the first 10 minutes of the game, effectively eliminating any offensive productivity from the Irish interior.

On the other end of the court, Notre Dame struggled equally when battling the Huskies in the low post. Thabeet, who struggled offensively against the Irish in South Bend, had his way with a variety of low post moves, and he combined with frontcourt partner Jeff Adrien to score 22 of the Huskies 32 first half points.

Despite their struggles against the Connecticut big men, the Irish managed to stay in the game by resorting to what they do best – shooting. Notre Dame made four 3-pointers in the final 10 minutes of the first half and shot a combined 6-of-15 from beyond the arc helping to finish the first 20 minutes down only 32-30.

The shots that kept Notre Dame in the game early ultimately eluded the Irish in the second half as Notre Dame endured a shooting stretch reminiscent of their 33 percent shooting performance against the Huskies on Jan. 24. After halftime, the Irish shot only 2-of-12 from 3-point land.

“It’s frustrating not to knock down those shots, especially when the game ended up that close,” McAlarney said. “We had some good looks.”

The Irish stayed in the game due largely to the contributions of Tory Jackson. The junior point guard who has endured an up-and-down season was at his creative best Saturday penetrating the Huskies lane and finishing at the hole or finding teammates for open looks. Jackson finished the game with 17 points on 7-of-14 shooting to go along with five assists.

Notre Dame has little time to recover from Saturday’s game as they prepare for what is a must-win game today at the JACC against Villanova if they hope to make the NCAA Tournament. The game begins at 7 p.m.