March 11, 2004
By JIM O'CONNELL
NEW YORK - Connecticut handled not having its best player pretty well.
With Emeka Okafor on the bench in street clothes, the ninth-ranked Huskies got big efforts from three players to beat Notre Dame 66-58 Thursday night in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament.
"We knew we had to pick up the slack and we got the job done," said Ben Gordon, who had 29 points. "We all knew we had talent. We just proved it to other people. The guys stepped up and made key contributions."
Freshmen Josh Boone and Charlie Villanueva had strong games on the boards for the second-seeded Huskies (25-6), who advanced to the semifinals for the ninth straight year. They will play Villanova, which beat No. 20 Providence 69-66 in the late game.
"You know, it's a real big thing," Boone said. "The last time we played Notre Dame the kid had 22 rebounds and 16 points. We really saw me and Charlie needed to step up tonight, and I think we did a good job of that."
Okafor, a 6-foot-10 junior, did not play because of back spasms related to a small stress fracture of the fifth lumbar vertebrae.
The Big East player of the year will be re-evaluated Friday, with Dr. Jeff Anderson, the school's director of sports medicine, saying Okafor could be available for the semifinals depending on the pain. "It's very conceivable," Anderson said.
Okafor said he feels good and it will be a game-time decision Friday, but there is "no doubt I'll be ready for the NCAAs."
Okafor, also selected the Big East's defensive player of the year and its scholar-athlete, averages 18.7 points, 11.5 rebounds and a nation-leading 4.5 blocked shots per game.
Gordon is second in scoring with a 17.2 average, while Villanueva and Boone are second and third to Okafor in rebounding at 5.3 and 5.1, respectively.
"Down the best player in America, I put a challenge to the team," Huskies coach Jim Calhoun said. "These kids believed in themselves. We're more than Emeka Okafor. This was an opportunity to show we're a very good team with some other guys who can play. I couldn't be prouder of our team. They answered every challenge."
Chris Thomas had 19 points for the Fighting Irish (17-12), who had a chance to tie the game with 3 minutes left but fell short and may have ended their hopes for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.
"We're 7-3 in our last 10 games and three were against these guys, and we won one of them," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. "I'm realistic. I talked to our guys about both tournaments in the locker room, to be mentally prepared and we'd be honored to play in either one of them."
Connecticut, which leads the nation in field-goal percentage defense at 36.9, held Notre Dame to 31.8 percent (21-for-66), including 7-for-29 from 3-point range. The Huskies lead the country in rebound margin and they dominated the backboards against Notre Dame, 53-32.
"I think I had to change my game a little bit," said Villanueva, who had 16 points. "I just tried to play inside more. I tried to stay away from the perimeter and try to do things that Emeka Okafor does."
Okafor, who was in a shirt and tie, said he felt like another coach on the bench and he did speak with the forwards at each timeout.
"I told them what I saw," he said. "Charlie and Josh did great. They had the right mind-set and they did whatever had to be done to win the game."
Thomas and Cornett scored on consecutive possessions to get Notre Dame within 59-56 with 3:04 to play. Gordon missed a shot for UConn and the Irish had their only chance to tie in the second half, but Thomas missed a 3-point attempt.
Gordon scored on a drive and then hit a 3 with the shot clock winding down to make it 64-56.
"We held them to 37 percent field goal percentage and 66 points, and I thought we'd have a chance and we did there for a while," Brey said. "We had to chase them and guard them and make a run at them that way. We did. We did a pretty good job."
Thomas finished 7-for-21 from the field, including 1-for-10 from 3-point range.
"To see them go in and out basically the whole game, it was tough," Thomas said. "We kept fighting, and the next thing you know we're back in it in the second half."
Connecticut has been in five of the last six championship games, winning the last of its five titles in 2002.
The teams split their regular-season meetings.