The Irish (12-6, 3-4) fell one game short of what would have been a Big East record of consecutive home wins, but instead will have to be satisfied with its tie of the mark at 20 contests with Pittsburgh. In what had been hyped as one of Notre Dame's most anticipated games in recent memory, No. 3 Connecticut (18-1, 7-1) displayed why they are one of the most talented teams in the nation, flexing its muscle in the Huskies' 69-61 victory over the Irish. In the end, it was Notre Dame's offensive woes, coupled with Connecticut's defense that snapped the streak.
"Well they really defended us tonight," coach Mike Brey said. "If you would have told me that they would score 69, and we'd hold them to 40-percent field goal percentage, I'd think that we would have a great shot, but they came back and took stuff away … But defensively they are tricky because of the big guy back there kind of changes things," Brey said of Husky center Hasheem Thabeet. "You move a little bit differently with him in there."
Besides the Husky defensive effort, a number of Irish shots were not finding the mark, making maters worse for the slumping Irish. Against Connecticut, Notre Dame had its lowest shooting percentage of the season, going 25-of-76 from the field for a total of 32.9 percent. The previous low came only a game before in the Irish loss to Syracuse last week in which the squad shot a combined 27-76 for a percentage of 35.5.
"There were some good looks we missed too," Brey said. "Those are some pretty good shooters that have to keep shooting those. You had it to a couple of transition decisions in the second half, and have it to one possession, but to come up empty — you've really got to capitalize on those in a game like this against a team like that."
Despite the offensive struggles, Notre Dame's reigning Big East Player of the Year continued to show why he is the favorite to repeat for the second time in a row. Luke Harangody set out to refute Thabeet's comments in ESPN the Magazine earlier this year regarding the toughness of the Irish junior. Harangody finished with a game-high 24 points and a team high 15 rebounds, but was the only Irish player to score in double figures. Notre Dame's next leading scorers were Tory Jackson and Kyle McAlarney who both picked up nine points in the contest. McAlarney hit his first three shots of the game, all three-pointers, but then couldn't pick up a point the rest of the way throughout, missing 12 straight attempts. Although the shooting guard couldn't find the mark in the second half, he doesn't necessarily think the Huskies did anything different to him defensively.
"I don't think they did," McAlarney said. "I had some great looks in the second half. In the first half, I missed some floaters in the lane. It just didn't fall for me tonight. That's unfortunate because I feel like maybe one or two of the shots go down and the line of the game changes."
The game got off to a rather slow start, but once both squads settled down, the first half was a series of traded baskets. Husky guard A.J. Price opened the scoring with a three pointer, followed by teammate Jerome Dyson's long-range jumper to put the score at 6-0. McAlarney eventually answered and tied the score with a pair of three's of his own with just over 17 minutes to go in the half. Price finished the game with 15 points, as Dyson added 13 to pace the Huskies.
As the period was winding down, a pair of Price free throws put the game at 22-20 in favor of the Huskies. Harangody answered back with a feature of his game that Irish faithful have not seen thus far this season — a three-pointer assisted from Zach Hillesland, giving the Irish a one-point lead. At the end of game, Harangody went 2-of-4 from beyond the arc, forcing Thabeet to often step out of the lane.
After Husky freshman Kemba Walker nailed a pair of free throws, Notre Dame worked the ball around the perimeter in its next possession. After going around the horn for a series of passes, Hillesland found a slashing Harangody for an easy layup putting the score at 26-25 in favor of Connecticut.
Both teams then traded a pair of baskets, until Price controlled the ball just beyond half court and lofted a perfectly-placed ball to Gavin Edwards who soared above Harangody to convert the alley oop. The dunk marked the last field goal of the half, putting Connecticut up by one, 30-29.
The contest remained tight as the second half started, but the Irish hit a period of offensive stagnancy that aided the Huskies en route to a 13-1 run that sealed Notre Dame's fate. After Harangody completed a reverse layup to put the Irish down two at 49-47, the Huskies got to work on the offensive end. Dyson drove past Ryan Ayers converting on a nifty lay-in despite good defense. The next time down, Thabeet received a Walker pass for an alley oop to put the score at 53-47. Price hit a layup and Walker slashed past the lane for a nifty finger roll that quickly quieted the crowd. Tory Jackson then hit a free throw, but Walker answered with a three-pointer and Thabeet subsequently hit an easy put-back to put the score at 62-48.
Although Notre Dame would create several spurts, it never mounted a substantial run that would put them back within striking distance. Now that the streak is over, it is tough for Brey to congratulate his squad in the wake of the disheartening loss.
"It's kind of hard to say congratulations after a night like this," he said. "I am kind of glad it is over. At 3-4 in the league we want to see if we can get a split this weekend. We are certainly proud to hold the all-time Big East record at 20 with Pittsburgh, and we have been pretty consistent."
Now that the Irish are reeling in arguably the toughest conference in the nation, there is only one place to go, according to Hillesland.
"Now we have a clean slate," he said. "We really have nothing to protect anymore. We've lost three in a row and we need to concentrate on getting out of this slump. It's going to take another step forward on the defensive end. We have to be strong offensively for 40 minutes."