Copyright by Global Electronics Telecommunications, publishers of IrishEyes.Com™
March 8, 2002
Friday Night Lights
Too Bright for Irish
By Alan Tieuli
The IrishEyes.Com News Service
NEW YORK (IE) – Now Notre Dame understands what the gold standard is in the Big East Conference.
For the last 13 seasons of the Jim Calhoun era, the Huskies have owned Madison Square Garden. With a raucous following rabidly cheering on a squad that never seems to run out of fresh, athletic bodies, Connecticut has won four Big East titles since 1990 and now heads to its seventh final in the same span.
"I thought I was in the state of Connecticut," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said Friday night after his team was defeated by the Huskies, 82-77, in the semifinals of the Big East Tournament. The tone was set before the opening tip when the Irish starters, as the visiting team, were introduced in silence to the 19,528 at Madison Square Garden.
When the Huskies starters were announced, it sounded like a Rangers game.
"I was surprised," said Irish freshman point guard Chris Thomas. "I had no idea they had such a following."
"To play on Friday night and have it be our building," said Brey. "That would be a dream. But, for now, it's Connecticut's."
And the Huskies, now 23-6, have earned this prime piece of West Side real estate. The 1999 National Champions not only win, they entertain with a brand of basketball that is over-the-rim and baseline-to-baseline.
"I thought we played well," said Brey. "We gave ourselves a chance to win. But there is little room for error against that team in this building. Sometimes you can take moral victories off a tough loss and this was one of those nights."
The Irish, 21-10, found themselves in a 59-all tie with 11:56 to go after Ryan Humphrey (21 points, 16 rebounds) hit a bank shot. That's when the UConn crazies at every level of MSG kicked it really into gear.
U-C-O-N-N, UConn, UConn, UCONN! The Irish will be hearing that chant in their sleep over the weekend.
"Being in Madison Square Garden on a Friday night is different," said Calhoun. "You have to make some plays."
And, fueled by the crowd, UConn did. It scored the next 10 points and held the Irish scoreless for 5:49. That was the game.
Notre Dame clawed back within five (74-69) and four (78-74) with Thomas (24 points, 10 assists) scoring his team's final 11 points. But there would be no fantastic finish. The better team won.
Caron Butler led the Huskies with 20 points and seven rebounds. Johnnie Selvie contributed 16 and eight. And UConn's two remarkable freshmen didn't disappoint. Guard Ben Gordon hit three-of-six three-pointers en route to a 19-point, six assist night. Emeka Okafor had 10 rebounds and three blocks, including a game-clinching swat of a Thomas drive in the final 30 seconds.
UConn received several key contributions – Tony Robertson, for instance, had a critical three-point basket in the second-half and two hoops in the clinching run – while Notre Dame's offense was limited to Humphrey, Thomas and Matt Carroll, who continued his recent hot string with a 20-point, four assist effort. But David Graves played in a funk, hitting only one-of-eight shots, all from three-point range. He had three points and two assists in 33 minutes and sat solemnly and alone in a locker-room corridor 30 minutes after the game. The senior deserved better in his finale.
"You got what you usually get our of Ryan, Chris and Matty," said Brey, "but we need Dave to score. I don't want to get down on him, because here is a kid who came out of this building last year and hit seven-of-seven shots in the first NCAA game. We'll need him to do that again next week."
Notre Dame opened the game with four consecutive turnovers but quickly settled down and basically exchanged baskets with the Huskies for the first 14 minutes. Connecticut's hoops were more athletic and ESPN worthy – back-to-back dunks, for instance, by Robertson and Okafor – but the Irish were efficient in their half-court sets (11 assists to 13 field goals). Carroll had 10 of his points by intermission, including a pair of threes, and Humphrey was once again a man, notching 13 points with seven rebounds.
After this feeling out period, ended, however, Connecticut was able to get the tempo in its favor the final six minutes before the break. It was 23-21 Irish with 6:52 remaining, a halfcourt game. Then the Huskies were able to speed up the game and got everyone involved in a 94-foot offense. Five different players scored in the final six minutes, resulting in 20 Husky points and a 41-36 lead. Butler was the unquestioned star for the team in white with 13 points, four assists, four rebounds and two steals, but the Irish also couldn't find anyone who could contain Selvie, who was sharp in his baseline penetration moves and had 10 points and, somehow, two assists. (The latter is major news considering that the senior entered the game with two assists all conference season for a remarkable assist-to-turnover ratio of one-to-15.5.)
The five-point halftime disadvantage was the largest the Irish faced since January 21 when it trailed Georgetown, 44-33, at the Joyce. It was hardly daunting. Thomas hit a pair of threes within the first three minutes and ND was up again, 44-43. It would be the last Irish lead.
Harold Swanagan had seven points and four rebounds in his final regular season game at Notre Dame but couldn't escape the long shadow of Okafor. The Irish only received two points from their bench, a transition dunk by Torrian Jones in the second-half. UConn had 23 points from its pine brigade, with Gordon doing most of the damage.
"I know Jim is thanking God that Ben's a freshman," said Brey.
Count on Gordon, Thomas and Okafor all being All-Big East first or second-team pre-season selections next year. And Butler proved on this night he was a worthy co-Player of the Year selection this season. It's appropriate he'll duel with Pittsburgh's Brandin Knight for the title Saturday. This is the way it should be: The two best players and the two best teams on the conference's most important stage.
"We walk out of here knowing we did our best that we had a good tournament, a good season," said Carroll. "We had great leadership from our seniors, we gave ourselves a chance to win virtually every game. Now it's on to the next tournament and we'll play well."
THE NOTEBOOK: With Lake Effect snow forecast for South Bend on Saturday, Brey was hoping to get his team out on the earliest flight from LaGuardia. "We want to get them home and get some rest," said Brey. "I'm sure by Saturday night this will be behind them and we can start looking forward to seeing our name flash on the screen Sunday night."…..Brey, his team, staff members, media and friends will be watching the NCAA Selection Show from the coach's Granger home…..Any chance of Notre Dame earning a slot in the Chicago regional is probably lost now, so Carroll is rooting for Pittsburgh or Washington. "I want it to be a place where a lot of family and friends can come," the personable junior guard said….General consensus among the media is that Notre Dame will be an eight or a nine seed. "I just know that I'll sleep well knowing we are in somewhere," said Brey, who feels the Big East is a "six bid conference."….Butler is a fascinating player with a harrowing story. He was jailed for cocaine possession and brandishing a firearm before he was 15. He also has a six-year-old child and is estranged from his father, who is a career Marine….IrishEyes considers Humphrey a legitimate second- or third-team All American candidate. His 21/16 effort last night marked his ninth consecutive double/double, a stretch where he is averaging nearly 21 points and 14 rebounds a contest. "I have trouble taking anything good out of a defeat," said Humphrey, "but this tournament was a positive experience for us. We competed. We're real close to proving we belong at this level. I'm just disappointed I won't be a part of future Friday nights here in New York."….IrishEyes picks Connecticut over Pittsburgh Saturday, though the Panthers are a worthy second seed in the NCAA Tournament.
(Alan Tieuli is the Managing Editor of IrishEyes and can be reached at email@example.com)