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January 12, 2013

UConn ends 17-game home streak

NOTRE DAME, Ind. - With a chance to open Big East play with a 3-0 mark for the first time in its 18 years in the conference, No. 17/16 Notre Dame (14-2, 2-1) saw too much Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright in the backcourt, and then an unlikely presence up front as Connecticut (12-3, 2-1) claimed a 65-58 victory Saturday afternoon at Purcell Pavilion.

“You win against Seton Hall, and then you get one on the road (at Cincinnati) that maybe you weren’t supposed to get,” said Mike Brey of Notre Dame’s 2-0 start in league play.

“You can get tricked in this league. ‘We can be 3-0!’ It’s funny how it never works out that way. You’re back to reality and you’re scratching and clawing on the road.”

The Huskies ended Notre Dame’s 12-game winning streak and 17-game home skein due largely to their 15-of-26 shooting (57.7 percent) in the second half and an unexpected performance by 6-foot-9 Tyler Olander, who finished with 16 points (on 8-of-9 shooting) and seven rebounds.

Olander came into the game averaging 4.6 points and 3.9 rebounds per game with a season-high of 10 points and a career-high of 12.

“His self-fortitude that I can get it done,” said UConn head coach Kevin Ollie of how his junior forward did it. “Just go and get the basketball no matter who (is) in front of (you).”

Olander’s performance offset Notre Dame big man Jack Cooley, who finished with 14 points and nine rebounds, including six on the offensive end. The Irish couldn’t get enough stops in the second half against the Huskies, who missed all four of their three-point attempts in the second half, but converted 15-of-22 from two-point range.

With Olander’s scoring and a strong second half performance by 6-foot-8 sophomore DeAndre Daniels (eight points and nine rebounds), the Huskies had enough of an inside presence to complement Napier (19 points, five rebounds, four assists) and Boatright (14 points, five assists), who won the battle of the backcourts with Notre Dame’s Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant.

“We were driving it and scoring pretty good in the first half, but their defense really changed and made it hard for us, and then they were really difficult to guard,” Brey said. “Their two guards are really good, and Olander was fabulous today.”

Trailing 58-52 with less than four minutes remaining, Atkins led the comeback that tied the game, including his leaner with 1:13 left to knot the score at 58. But Boatright hit 5-of-6 free throws down the stretch, and Grant - who shot just 5-of-18 from the field - was stripped twice as he tried to penetrate and make something happen.

“We were really expecting more of the same in the second half from Napier and Boatright, and then we were caught off guard that they kept feeding the post and going to Daniels and Olander,” said Atkins, who finished with a team-high 18 points.

“We didn’t want to leave Napier and Boatright because they had been shooting the ball so well in the first half.”

Cooley did what he could do inside, accounting for six of Notre Dame’s 10 offensive rebounds. But he eventually fouled out after picking up his fourth foul for an illegal screen with 2:05 remaining.

“We were going to give (Olander) jump shots, and then he started hitting them,” Cooley said. “We went small and they recognized that right away and went to him three possessions in a row. We’ve just got to play better interior defense.”

Notre Dame maintained a three-to-six point lead throughout much of the first half before taking a 31-29 lead into the locker room at halftime. Cameron Biedscheid’s bucket with 15:48 left in the game gave the Irish a 35-34 lead. But it would be their final advantage. Notre Dame tied it five times after that - including Atkins’ crucial basket with 1:13 remaining - but never could get over the hump.

“We had great opportunities, but it never felt good in there,” Brey said. “The vibe was different than other nights. It was going to have to be a flat-out theft...Not tonight.

“We played with a little bit of the weight of the world on our shoulders because it was like, ‘Damn, we may not be able to get this one,’ and that took it’s toll on us…They were better for 40 minutes. They flat-out deserved it.”

Grant finished with 11 points, and Pat Connaughton had all seven of his points in the first half as he repeatedly penetrated the lane against the Huskies. Scott Martin, who had converted 10-of-14 three-pointers in the previous two games, managed just three points in 34 minutes. The Irish shot just 40.7 percent in the second half.

The loss was Notre Dame’s first at Purcell Pavilion since the Huskies defeated the Irish last season, 67-53, on Jan. 14.

“In league play, interesting things happen,” said a philosophical Brey, who now gets his team ready for a Tuesday tilt in Madison Square Garden against St. John’s. “You have to turn around and figure out what you can do Tuesday night in New York.”

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