The favored Irish won their second game vs. a top 10 foe in seven days Tuesday, defeating No. 8 Connecticut, 73-70 thanks to a terrific second-half by Ben Hansbrough, a team effort on the boards, and an outstanding defensive performance vs. the nation's best scorer.
Notre Dame's errant foul shooting turned a late 8-point lead into a one possession game with a string of charity stripe misses that gave the visitors a window, the basketball, and a mere three-point deficit with 9.2 seconds remaining.
The Irish missed five of 10 free throws between the 2:33 and 0:09 mark to give the Huskies a final shot at overtime but an awful final shot attempt – from more than 25 feet out with ample time remaining – by otherwise outstanding freshman Shabazz Napier concluded the contest.
The Irish missed 12 of their 31 free throws on the evening including an unlikely 4-10 performance by former 87 percent foul shooter Tim Abromaitis.
When asked post-game if Brey – who's repeatedly offered he doesn't talk to good shooters about their slumps – would discuss the sloppy freebie effort with his team he joked, "Next question."
Brey was afforded the last laugh because of the team's commitment to defense and rebounding – they owned a 36-33 edge over the Huskies despite the absence of leading board man Carleton Scott (hamstring) and the overall excellence and will of the senior Hansbrough.
The emerging leader and soul of the squad, Hansbrough finished with a game-high 21 points in 40 taxing minutes. 12 of his 21 came in a 5-7 second half shooting effort, the bulk of which were created in half-court sets when the Irish needed him most.
More important than his scoring and determination was his defensive effort vs. the nation's leading scorer, Kemba Walker. Walker managed 19 points (seven below his season-average), but was hounded into 15 misses in 23 field goal attempts including an 0-5 mark from long range.
"I thought our team awareness of Walker was great, but I told Ben Hansbrough, ‘That's a heck of a workout to guard that guy and then score 21 and make key plays," Brey said of the night's savior. "Ben has been a man but tonight he was the ultimate man on both ends of the floor."
Heavy artillery, earlyBrey's Irish used another hot home start to control the tenor of the contest. Senior forward Scott Martin facilitated the effort, draining back-to-back 3-point buckets from the right wing during an 11-0 run as the Irish jumped to leads of 13-5, 18-9 and later in the half, 31-23 vs. a Connecticut team that had already defeated Michigan State and Kentucky this year.
Notre Dame reverted to the Burn offense for the half's final five minutes. The tactic appeared to backfire as the visitors narrowed the gap to 35-30 late before a spinning Hansbrough found Abromaitis open on the left wing for a deep triple, one released just prior to the halftime buzzer and a 38-30 advantage.
The Huskies answered from the outset of the second with a 9-4 run to trim the lead at the first official timeout to just three, 42-39, but Brey's group maintained at least a two-point edge from that moment through the final gun.
"Jack (Swarbrick) made a good point: Every time it got to a one possession game, we had a great possession (in terms of) efficiency and made it a two-possession game. That's concentration and maturity and guys that have played together awhile."
Those precarious first four minutes of the second stanza also included fouls No. 3 and No. 4 for Martin as well as No. 3 for Tyrone Nash. Brey had already resorted to an unorthodox matchup, featuring Martin against 7'0" center Charles Okwandu early. (Averaging just 2.2 ppg entering the contest, Okwandu's only career double-digit game occurred vs. the Irish in a 12-point win at Storrs last January.) Now the Irish would be forced to play part of the decisive final stanza without three (including the absent Carleton Scott) of its top six performers.
"We've been here before; losing a guy and having this nucleus step forward," Brey said in reference to the winning streak the team enjoyed after losing leading scorer and rebounder Luke Harangody last season. "The one thing it does do is make Scott Martin a (power forward). And as you can see, when a big guy is chasing him around, he's pretty good. He was excited because he could get to the post a little more and I think he took advantage of some matchups in there.
"I told him before the jump ball: there is nobody in the building that can guard you tonight. He got out of the gate for us (back-to-back 3's to key an early run)."
Martin was much more aggressive for the bulk of the contest, finishing with 13 points in 31 minutes though he did miss 8 of 12 shots.
The Odd Couple?Also providing a lift was sophomore big man Jack Cooley who gave the Irish 18 minutes of hustle and crowd-pleasing frenzy off the bench. Cooley collected six rebounds (two offensive) and came up with numerous loose balls as the quicker Huskies repeated challenged the Irish defense after made shots.
"Our guys love playing with him," Brey said of the fan favorite Cooley. "And Ben loves him. He's like Ben's personal bouncer. If Jack goes into WWF, Ben would be his manager…I thought his rebounding, his post defense…he really gives us some toughness."
But Hansbrough was the story, a fact not lost on Connecticut coaching legend Jim Calhoun.
"He's one of the better players in the league," Calhoun said of Hansbrough. "He's a very physical player. He'd be a hell of a running back (Calhoun noted he was serious). He uses his body to get to places and in addition to being one of the better players, I've always seen that competitiveness in him and I have great respect for him."
Brey, who has always understood, but wisely understated the value of one league win, knows his 11th Irish squad won't wilt under the season's grind.
"We're tough, man. We have a mentally and physically tough group. We weren't as tough in the paint as we needed to be in the Carrier Dome and we really talked about that. I think they wanted to make up for that and they really did. The mental toughness is every bit as good as the physical toughness."
That increased toughness can be traced to the former transfer Hansbrough.
"I love him," Brey said of Hansbrough who did everything but sell popcorn above Section 14. "He makes me confident every day I walk into practice and in the locker room before the game and he's made his teammates believe and be confident since he got here."
With Walker hounded by Hansbrough and out of sorts most of the evening, backup point guard Shabazz Napier picked up the slack, scoring 11 first half points on perfect shooting (3-3 from long range; 2-2 free throws) in an 11-minute stint. He finished with 18 points and five assists to lead UConn to a 30-2 edge in bench production.
Brey shared that Hansbrough's defense and offense was augmented but a brief spat with his boss on the sidelines as well.
"I can't remember (why they argued)," Brey noted. "He gave me one of his looks and I just snapped on him. I just love him. He's the kind of guy that we can get into each other a little bit but one of a timeouts later we (admitted) we just want to win this so bad.
"We have not (previously) had a guy like that. There's such a toughness and an edge."
That's shown since he first took the court in November of 2009. It's festered and likely hit its peak when the Irish dropped a first-round game to Old Dominion last season in the NCAA Tournament – that after a sterling ending to the regular season and run to the Big East Semi-Finals.
"We set higher standards this year," Hansbrough said after the win. "Especially after losing the NCAA Tournament. That still scars me. That just lit a spark in me as a senior. I really want to go out there and achieve great things.
"We're 2-1 vs. three Top 10 teams in the country but I don't want us to be satisfied," Hansbrough noted of the team's work over the last seven days. "We're far from done. We want to continue to improve. This is not over."
Not by a long shot.
Up next for the Irish, a St. John's team that's 3-0 in conference and has defeated the Irish in both of the past two seasons.
Tip-off is set for 8:00 PM Saturday on ESPNU.
Note: Irish Eyes will have more on Tuesday night's win over the Huskies in the first 2011 edition of Personnel Points Wednesday morning.