HARTFORD – Progress wasn’t evident in this one.
Notre Dame’s bench went scoreless and its core players were significantly outplayed in the final 10 minutes of an 82-70 loss to Connecticut at the relatively quiet XL Center.
There was an announced attendance of 16,294 at the former home of the Hartford Whalers, but nowhere near the passion of a contest at the on-campus Gampel Pavilion, about 30 miles east. This was a ripe environment for the Irish to make an early season statement.
But Big East Conference games aren’t won when your reserves are outscored 27-0 and three key starters – in this case guards Tory Jackson and Ben Hansbrough, and forward Tim Abromaitis – shoot a combined 9-for-27 from the field.
“I don’t hang my hat too much on bench scoring,” said Notre Dame coach Mike Brey. “But Abromaitis and Hansbrough need to score for us to beat good teams.”
UConn, now 10-3 overall and 1-1 in the Big East, has earned its pedigree as one of the nation’s best programs. And while the 10th ranked Huskies may not look as imposing as some of Jim Calhoun’s other units, they do have a pair of prime-time players in elevator Stanley Robinson (22 points, 16 rebounds) and point guard Jerome Dyson (20 points, 10 assists).
In order to compete against a starry pair, the Irish need more than just Luke Harangody. The senior did everything he could do, with 31 points and nine boards, but the majority of his teammates didn’t pull their weight.
Notre Dame (12-3, 1-1) has not beaten a Big East Top 10 team on the road during the Brey-era, and it didn’t this afternoon in large part because Abromaitis didn’t reach double-figures for the first time this year, Hansbrough misfired on seven of his 11 shots, and Jackson had just three points in the first 35 minutes of the game.
Abromaitis’ effort was doubly painful as he prepped in nearby Farmington and was returning to the Nutmeg State for the first time as an Irish contributor. He didn’t score or secure a rebound in the first-half and never got untracked, finishing with eight points.
“I didn’t feel any extra pressure but maybe I didn’t get into the flow at all,” Abromaitis said. ”I would like to have seen a couple of more shots go down.”
Shutting down Abromaitis and Harangody was a priority for Calhoun, who admitted post-game he was “really afraid (ND) would come in here and make 12, 13, 14 three-point shots, really light it up.” But UConn’s long wings held Notre Dame to eight-for-22 shooting beyond the arc.
The Irish did receive a spirited effort from Tyrone Nash (11 points, eight rebounds in 21 minutes) and consistent excellence from Harangody, who topped 30 points for the second time this season. The latter’s mid-range jumper with 10:28 to play gave Notre Dame its last lead, 54-53.
From that point Robinson and Dyson were masterful. The two combined for nine points in a 13-2 UConn run that put the Huskies up 66-56 with 6:16 remaining. Notre Dame would get no closer than six the rest of the way.
“Robinson is as athletic as they come,” said Abromaitis. “And (guard Kemba) Walker and Dyson can shove it down your throat real quick.”
Abromaitis knows this first-hand as he played a significant amount of pick-up ball this summer in Storrs with the UConn team. They welcomed him, and Robinson offered the Irish junior some advice late in this game.
“He was very supportive,” Abromaitis related. “He said, ‘you’re good, just keep shooting it.’”
“We’ve thrown a lot at Tim this year,” Brey said of his first-year starter. “But this was the game I was worried about the most.”
Brey perhaps should have also been concerned about combating UConn’s size and depth. The Irish had absolutely no answer for the Huskies’ reserve bigs as junior 7-footer Charles Okwandu and 6-10 senior Gavin Edwards combined for 23 points and seven boards in 41 minutes.
Okwandu entered having scored six points all season. But plugged in early for an ineffective Ater Majok, he notched 10 on five-for-five shooting.
That type of pine contribution underscores how vulnerable Notre Dame is when its starters aren’t all on. In this one, Brey called on his only two trusted reserves, Jonathan Peoples and Carleton Scott, and they both let him down. Scott missed three open looks in the first-half and Peoples was invisible in 12 minutes.
The Scott misses were particularly damaging in the opening 20 minutes as Notre Dame – fueled by Nash’s energy and Harangody’s talent – outplayed the Huskies and deserved better than to be trailing, 34-32.
And when it got to crunch time the Irish simply wore out. Connecticut, off a road loss to Cincinnati, played with more desperation when needed.
“The momentum in the second half and second shots got us,” Brey said. “But I just told the team this league is about bouncing back and we will try to learn from this.”
The Irish chartered out after the game to Tampa and have a couple of days of warm R’n’R before visiting South Florida on Tuesday night. That is hardly a gimme, as Notre Dame has lost eight of its last 10 Big East roadies.
“We played pretty well for 30 minutes,” Brey said. “That’s not quite enough. But I still feel good about my group.”
He’ll feel better starting Tuesday if he gets more balanced contributions from his iron seven. Inconsistency is rarely rewarded in the brutal Big East Conference.