Courageous, but Still an Opportunity Lost

STORRS, Conn. - The party line being sold in the Notre Dame locker-room was that the Irish effort in an 84-78 loss to No. 17 Connecticut was valiant. There was much to gain from this defeat, said more than one player.

"I saw some things, confidence wise, that I had not seen before," said head coach Mike Brey.

But, one suspects, after the Irish charter flight lands in South Bend , and practice resumes on Thursday afternoon, a new feeling will creep in.

Opportunity lost.

Notre Dame played well, "very well, in fact," for the first 32-plus minutes. When Luke Harangody converted inside off a nice dish from Zach Hillesland, the Irish had a 70-66 lead. They had made 53-percent of their shots to that point, shredding UConn's defense systematically.

Nobody in Notre Dame Nation at that time was thinking moral victory. The thoughts were much grander. Such as a leg up on a first-round bye in the Big East Tournament and a real shot at the conference regular season championship.

But then the Irish blinked. Big time. Over the final 7:45, Notre Dame made just one-of-19 shots (5.2%). It missed six shots, two free throws and had a key turnover in the final 90 seconds. Connecticut only needed to make one field goal, " a courageous three by Stanley Robinson," in the final two minutes to win.

"It does feel," admitted Harangody after some reflection, "that we had one taken away from us."

Indeed. Instead of sitting 9-2 in the Big East Conference with a six-game winning streak, just a half stride behind Georgetown, the 18th-ranked Irish now drop into a tie for third with Connecticut at 8-3. Instead of surging up the national rankings and gaining separation from the Huskies, Brey's men see Pittsburgh just one game behind in the standings. Each of the final seven regular season games should have enormous meaning.

Granted, Gampel Pavilion is a happening place. The Huskies are now an incredible 117-17 in its Spaceship Earth-shaped facility, tucked away in pastoral northeast Connecticut (Red Sox country). The sold-out gathering of 10,167 was in full throat and bounce. And junior guard A.J. Price was officially having the game of his life, with a career-high 26 points and nine assists.

But Notre Dame was also getting an amazing game from its stud. Harangody, who was a subpar five-for-23 against UConn in ND's terrific 73-67 victory on January 5, adjusted enough to score a career-high 32 points, to go along with 16 boards. Against 7-3 Hasheem Thabeet, no less.

The Irish just couldn't find a way to get the ball into him one or two more times to seal the deal. They couldn't come into the heart of Big East territory against a conference charter member and win a pulsating game. And this is not, it should be pointed out, a short-time trend. Going back to 2003-04, Notre Dame is 3-9 at on-campus Big East facilities. Connecticut is now the Flavor of the Month in the Big East, with eight straight wins, four over ranked opponents.

To win multiple games in the NCAA Tournament, you have to have the same mental toughness required to win on the road.

But Brey was taking the positive route.

"This was a great college basketball game, a great atmosphere," he said. "I loved how my team played. I was scared to death of Price coming in. He has been their key in their winning streak. He showed why."

The biggest shot came from an unlikely source. With 1:52 left, sophomore 6-9 forward Stanley Robinson drained a wing three, off a gorgeous look by Price. That gave UConn its biggest lead of the game, to that point, 79-74.

Robinson entered the game hitting only 34-percent of his threes but, as Brey said, "Playing at home, sometimes you are a better shooter than the numbers say."

Notre Dame couldn't answer. Thabeet (six blocks) jumped out to devour a Ryan Ayers (two-for-six) three. Ayers missed another three on ND's next full possession and Luke Zeller (two-for-eight) and Kyle McAlarney (four-for-14) also mis-fired in the final minute.

"Ryan Ayers look was good," said Brey. "Luke Zeller is shooting the ball as well as anybody. We tried everything in the handbook tonight. It wasn't enough in the end."

"There is nothing we need to fix," said McAlarney, who was held to 12 points by UConn's tenacious Craig Austrie, after he torched the Huskies for 32 in January. "We need to just keep being aggressive. We handled our first on-campus road game well. We'll get right back at it Sunday (at Rutgers)."

Tory Jackson had a solid game for the Irish, notching 13 points, nine rebounds (five offensive), four assists and two steals. But this made him only a distant second among point guards as Price was magical.

"A.J. was the difference," said Connecticut head coach Jim Calhoun. "Everybody chipped in but he took the game over."

That left Jackson with some hunger for the post-season.

"We had all the opportunities in the world to capitalize," the sophomore said. "We laid it all on the floor. I hope we see Connecticut in the tournament."

If so, note that Connecticut has improved in leaps and bounds, and has galvanized since Calhoun suspended sophomore starter Jerome Dyson for violation of team rules in late January. The Huskies are 6-0 since and have an intimidating frontcourt with Thabeet and Jeff Adrien (13 points and nine boards after a very slow start).

There is absolutely no disgrace to losing on the road. But if Notre Dame really wants to take the next step to elite status, it needs to learn how to close in the toughest environments. And it also has to realize there are no moral victories.

Give them time. Brey has successfully taught them every other lesson this year.

***Alan Tieuli is the Editor-in-chief of Irish Eyes Magazine. Top Stories