No. 2 Connecticut holds off Notre Dame, 72-65
STORRS, Conn. (AP)—Connecticut fans left no doubt Saturday how they feel about coach Jim Calhoun and his basketball team.
Calhoun, who has been at the center a controversy after some heated remarks he made to a freelance journalist while defending his seven-figure salary, received two standing ovations before the game, and walked off to another ovation after the Huskies went out and beat Notre Dame 72-65.
The win puts UConn (27-2, 15-2 Big East) in position to play for the regular-season championship next Saturday at top-ranked Pittsburgh.
The fans, many carrying pictures of the coach’s face, roared as he entered the arena and again as he was honored for his 800th career win, which he earned Wednesday at Marquette.
“A lot more joy can be brought to this state, to this program, to this school and that’s what we’re going to be trying to do as a team, and that’s what I’m going to be trying to do personally,” said A.J. Price, who along with Jeff Adrien and Craig Austrie was playing his final home game.
Adrien had 25 points and nine rebounds, and Hasheem Thabeet added 16 points, 11 rebounds and eight blocked shots for UConn (27-2, 15-2 Big East), which is assured of byes in the first and second rounds of the Big East tournament.
“There is no other way I would ever want to go out,” said Adrien, who was just two points short of his career high. “I want to be remembered like this, as a warrior and someone who worked hard.”
Tory Jackson had 17 points, while Kyle McAlarney and Luke Harangody each added 14 for Notre Dame (16-12, 7-9). The Irish came in having won four of their last five games, and needed a win to make a strong case for an NCAA tournament bid. The Irish have two home games left against Villanova on Monday and St. John’s on Friday.
“I think we still have a shot (at the NCAA tournament),” said 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.”
The victory was the 15th in a row for the Huskies at Gampel Pavilion.
UConn swept the Irish this season, winning 69-61 at the Joyce Center on Jan. 24. a game that snapped Notre Dame’s 45-game home winning streak. The Irish were hoping to return the favor.
Notre Dame stayed with the Huskies throughout the game and UConn was up just 66-65 with 42 seconds left. That’s when A.J. Price threw a lob pass to Thabeet, who was shoved to the ground by McAlarney. Thabeet, a career 63 percent free throw shooter, limped to the bench and Craig Austrie, who has hit 81 percent of his foul shots, came in and sank both.
“If (Thabeet) faked it, I’m glad,” Calhoun joked. “Because I never thought he was that sophisticated about the game.
McAlarney missed a 3-pointer on the other end and the Huskies hit enough free throws in the closing seconds to secure the win.
Thabeet came out strong, blocking two Harangody shots and scoring seven of the Huskies’ first 11 points as UConn built an 11-5 lead.
Adrien and Thabeet were a combined 10-for-10 from the field in the first half. The pair also combined for seven of the Huskies’ nine first-half blocks, forcing Notre Dame to the perimeter.
The Irish thrived there, hitting six 3-pointers in the half, including two each from McAlarney and Jackson. They were down just 32-30 at the break, despite shooting just 32 percent from the field.
“We gave ourselves every opportunity to win in a tough place against a heck of a team” said Notre Dame coach Mike Brey. “I’m proud of our group. Connecticut made some big, big play and some big buckets.”
The Irish hit just two 3s in the second half, and ended up 8-of-27 from behind the arc, just as they were in first meeting.
“It’s frustrating not to knock down those shots, especially when the game ended up that close,” said McAlarney. “We had some good looks.”
UConn hit just 2-of-8 from 3-point range, but won the battle down low, shooting almost 54 percent from the floor. Thabeet and Adrien were a combined 18-for-28.
“We were able to scratch out a win, and that’s what you have to do sometimes when you get caught not playing as well as you think you could,” Calhoun said.
UConn now has a week off to prepare for Pittsburgh and another week after that before the conference tournament.