Without any semblance of offensive rhythm or the benefit of calls that typically go the home team’s way, No. 17 Notre Dame crumbled down the stretch Saturday afternoon in a 65-58 loss to Connecticut, seeing a 12-game win streak come to an end in the process.
The Huskies took over in the second half and Notre Dame couldn't keep pace in its first league defeat of the year
An eight-point lead with 6:12 to play in the first half began to evaporate when UConn drained a trio of 3-pointers on three of its final five possessions. The Irish, which were 13-0 this year when holding a halftime lead entering the contest, headed to the locker room with a 31-29 advantage.
After the intermission, Huskies junior forward Tyler Olander ignited for 12 of his career-high 16 points, forcing the Fighting Irish (14-2, 2-1 Big East) on their heels defensively. Olander gave UConn its first lead of the game (36-35) with around 15:30 to play.
Notre Dame freshman forward Cameron Biedscheid drained a 3-pointer on the next trip down the floor to regain the advantage, and an Eric Atkins triple tied the contest at 40-40 a few possessions later, but without any semblance of rhythm offensively after that, the Huskies began to pull away.
“They were really difficult to guard at key times,” Irish head coach Mike Brey said. “The two guards [Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright] are really good and Olander was fabulous today. That has to be his best game.
“I love how we fought. It wasn’t all going great for us and we were trying to figure out how to steal it, but they deserved it. They got a lot of loose balls, too.”
Both teams shot 44 percent in the first half, with Notre Dame enjoying a slight advantage behind the arc, making 6 of 13 attempts compared to UConn’s 4-for-13 effort. The Huskies, however, with a lot of high-percentage shots, connected on 57.7 percent of their field goal attempts in the second frame. The Irish shot 40.7 percent (11-for-27) over the final 20 minutes.
Napier collected a game-high 19 points and four assists for UConn, which improved to 12-3 overall and 2-1 in the Big East. Boatright added 14 points and five assists, and Olander chipped in seven rebounds after surpassing his season average in points by nearly 12.
“There are some pretty good players that can do that in the Big East,” Cooley said of Olander’s performance. “I played really poor defense … that probably led to that too. We haven’t lost much this year. Our team will come back strong. We just need to see what we did wrong and come back and play better.”
Atkins, a junior point guard that played every minute for the Irish Saturday, poured in 18 points and tallied four assists. Senior center Jack Cooley, who like many of his teammates couldn’t get a lot of point-blank attempts to drop, finished with 14 points and nine rebounds. Junior guard Jerian Grant contributed 11 points to round out Notre Dame’s double-figure scorers.
“We had great opportunities,” Brey said. “It never felt good in there though. The vibe was different than other nights; it was going to have to be a flat-out theft. When Jack Cooley gets that rebound and it gets stripped and bounced into that guy’s hand and he lays it in, that’s kind of the exclamation point on [this not being our night].
“You’ve got to give Connecticut a lot of credit. Their guards are really good; they defend you and they’re hard to guard.”
An Atkins 3-pointer with 1:04 to play tied the game at 58-58, but Boatright capitalized on a pair of free throws and the Huskies took advantage of two frantic and fruitless Irish possessions to push the lead back to 64-58.
“I thought we could drive it more and maybe get some calls, but we forced some stuff,” Brey said. “I think we’ve got to look at that, when we’re in that situation do we move the ball a little bit more before we put our head down and go? He was trying to get us jumpstarted, but probably forced a couple.”
Notre Dame travels to New York’s Madison Square Garden Tuesday for a league contest against St. John’s, which defended its home court against the Irish on Feb. 25, 2012, for a 61-58 victory.
“We need to get some rest, watch some film of some things we maybe can do better, because we’re going to see ball screens again with St. John’s,” Brey added. “… This league is all about how you can bounce back, and we’re going to be in it a lot.”