Feb 21, 2004
By DONNA TOMMELLEO
AP Sports Writer
HARTFORD, Conn. – Behind the inside power of Emeka Okafor, No. 8 Connecticut turned an offensive dud of a game into a defensive gem.
Okafor, a national player of the year candidate, had 14 points, a career-high 22 rebounds and seven blocked shots Saturday to lead the Huskies to a 61-50 victory over Notre Dame.
“No one can alter a game the way he alters a game,” UConn coach Jim Calhoun said.
The Huskies shot just 35.6 percent but thanks to solid guard play from Taliek Brown and the big edge in the post were able to lock down red-hot guard Chris Thomas and snap Notre Dame’s three-game winning streak.
Okafor made it tough for 40 minutes for anybody to penetrate the lane. His sky-high block on a driving Thomas with under 6 minutes to play punctuated the kind of defensive effort the Huskies exerted all afternoon.
“I saw Taliek get beat and Chris eyed me. He wanted to take it one more step but he just threw it up and I went up and got it,” Okafor said.
The Huskies (21-5, 9-3 Big East) avenged an 80-74 road loss to the Irish on Feb. 9 holding Thomas to 13 points on Saturday. The junior guard, who scored 31 in the last meeting, had just two points at halftime. He was averaging 19.2 points coming into the game.
“I knew they were going to bring their whole team at me,” Thomas said. “I didn’t get a good shot the whole day. We basically had to force shots.”
Notre Dame (13-10, 7-6) shot 19 percent in the first half and never got closer than four points all game.
Freshman forward Josh Boone had 12 points and 11 rebounds for the Huskies, who outrebounded the Irish 59-30. Boone said the loss early this month at Notre Dame was a major motivation for him.
“I just remember how they stormed the court against us,” Boone said. “It says a lot that we can still win by 11 points and only shoot 35 percent from the floor. Even if the shots weren’t falling, we proved we can still be a great team.”
Both UConn guards Brown and Ben Gordon combined to shoot just 2-of-18. Gordon, who was averaging 17 points, finished with a season-low five points.
Okafor picked up his nation-leading 17th double-double and his 22 rebounds were the most by a UConn player since 1986. The school record of 40 belongs to Art Quimby, who played from 1952-55.
Coach Jim Calhoun had publicly asked the crowd earlier this week to turn up the volume for this game. The capacity crowd of 16,294 in the Hartford Civic Center complied with deafening support each time the Huskies brought the ball down court.
Brown drew the defensive assignment on Thomas for most of the game and said he could gamble with his pressure because Okafor would be waiting inside.
“We got a lot of pressure on the guards so if they penetrate and get by us, Emeka’s there and he’s going to change up all their shots,” Brown said.
The Huskies opened with a 10-0 run over the first 6 minutes, while the Irish and Thomas struggled. Notre Dame missed its first 10 shots before Jordan Cornette hit a 3-pointer with 13:34 remaining.
Thomas had very little operating room most of the half. He was 1-of-8 in the period and didn’t get off his first shot until there were almost 6 minutes gone. Thomas, who has played every minute of the past three games, finally got a breather and sat out about 3 minutes late in the half.
Notre Dame coach Mike Brey praised the Huskies’ defensive effort.
“I watched a lot of tape on them. I don’t know if they’ve ever got into people like they did today defensively,” Brey said.
Okafor grabbed 12 rebounds in the first 20 minutes, getting 10 on the defensive boards. After the Irish cut it to 12-8 with 11:26 left, Okafor hit a jumper in the lane to kick off a 6-0 run. The Huskies led by as many as 14 points in taking a 31-19 halftime lead.
Denham Brown and Rashad Anderson each added 12 points for UConn.
Chris Quinn finished with 10 points for Notre Dame.
Okafor’s seven blocks gave him 414 for his career and moved him past Shaquille O’Neal (412) as No. 12 on the NCAA career list.
“Shaq’s doing pretty well right now, so if I’m on his path, I have something to look forward to,” Okafor said.
A 6-foot-10 junior, Okafor will earn his degree after just three years and is expected to be a lottery pick in the NBA draft. Calhoun reminded him that Saturday’s game would likely be his final appearance in the Hartford Civic Center.
“We told him to do something special,” Calhoun said. “He certainly did.”