Irish Rewind: Notre Dame 'fearless' in victory over No. 5 Connecticut

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND -- Spirits that had been shelved deep inside the Notre Dame locker room far too long bubbled over into bedlam at the final horn Monday against No. 5 Connecticut.

Several Irish danced atop the scorer's table. Chris Quinn waved wildly while given a piggy-back ride by freshman Colin Falls. The student body even spilled from the stands and swarmed center court.

Notre Dame knew it needed 40 fine minutes just to have a chance against the league's elite, and all involved made sure to savor the effort of an 80-74 victory in front of a sellout crowd.

"We figured this was our last stand," junior co-captain Chris Thomas said of a team that had lost three straight league games and six of eight overall. "We couldn't take it any more, so the whole team put it together.

"This was huge for us."

It was Notre Dame's first victory after six defeats on national television this season, and its first win over a top 5 team since beating No. 4 Pittsburgh on the same Joyce Center floor exactly one year earlier. The Irish move to 11-9 overall, 5-5 in the Big East.

"Nobody really gave us a shot tonight," said Quinn, who scored 17 points and rekindled memories of Willis Reed fighting off injury to return to the court. "We just stuck together."

Connecticut, which had won four-straight league games by an average of 24.7 points, falls to 19-4, 7-2. The Huskies, who were up three at half, had been 55-1 the last three years when leading at the break.

"I couldn't be more disappointed," said head coach Jim Calhoun. "They deserved to win that basketball game because they set their mind to win that basketball game."

With sophomore power forward Torin Francis sidelined for all but seven minutes by back spasms, the Irish needed contributions from all angles to avoid a fourth consecutive loss for the first time under head coach Mike Brey.

Notre Dame then received a spectacular effort from Thomas. Much maligned during the team's troubles, Thomas set a new school record for career assists (now 590) and produced a season- and game-high 31 points. In addition, he guided the Irish against one of the league's top defensive teams without a turnover in the second half.

"Fearless," Jordan Cornette said of Thomas.

Two nights after Connecticut tied a Big East record with three total turnovers against West Virginia, Notre Dame finished with four, all in the first half.

"He really quarterbacked the tempo of the game," Brey said of Thomas. "It was an easy game to coach for me because of how he played."

The Irish also received something special from Quinn, who was 5-of-11 from the floor after he missed all eight shots two nights earlier in the loss to Pittsburgh. Carried off with 13:57 remaining, Quinn electrified the crowd when he sprinted back from the locker room, sore right ankle or not, with 11:53 to play.

"Pretty dramatic around here," Brey said.

Quinn had no idea what was going on while he was examined by the Irish medical staff. All Notre Dame did was push a one-point lead out to four, which threatened to blow the roof off the building. Quinn returned to hit three key free throws the final 18 seconds.

"Fearless," Cornette said of Quinn.

Also valuable to victory was sophomore Rick Cornett, who had wasted away on the bench for most of Big East play. Called on in Francis' absence, Cornett played 15 minutes and scored six points with a career-high seven rebounds as the Irish simply out-worked one of the nation's top rebounding teams to win the battle of second-chance points, 14-11.

"Fearless," Cornette said of Cornett.

Connecticut center Emeka Okafor may be headed for league player of the year honors, but he was just another guy in an opposing jersey to Cornett, who insisted on no nerves.

"I'm not worried about anybody," he said. "I just went out there like, hey, he's good, but I'm going to try and be the better man tonight."

Knowing he had to be more aggressive around the basket, Torrian Jones took the ball time again at Okafor with no fear. When it was over, Jones had tallied 13 points and a game-high 12 rebounds, the second double-double of his career.

"We just really showed toughness for 40 minutes," Jones said. "Every time the ball came off the rim, we were confident we were going to get the rebound."

Notre Dame trailed by as many as six points early in the second half, then went up by six less than nine minutes later after Thomas connected on consecutive 3-pointers. The Huskies stayed close behind Ben Gordon (22 points) and Okafor (24), who tied the game at 69 on a jumper with 3:06 remaining.

Thomas, as was the case all night, had the answer. His 3-pointer put Notre Dame in the lead to stay and convinced the Irish that this just might be a special night. For the first time in weeks, Notre Dame believed it could win a close game.

"That's where I thought we took a big step," Brey said. "A lot of that was Thomas. When Thomas' demeanor is like it was tonight, we can play with anybody."

NOTRE DAME 80, CONNECTICUT 74

At Joyce Center

NOTRE DAME (80)

min fg ft rb pf tp

35 Jordan Cornette 2-5 0-0 7 1 6

7 Torin Francis 0-3 0-0 1 1 0

40 Chris Thomas 9-21 7-8 4 0 31

34 Chris Quinn 5-11 5-8 0 2 17

38 Torrian Jones 5-11 4-7 12 1 14

15 Rick Cornett 2-7 2-4 7 2 6

7 Colin Falls 0-2 0-0 0 0 0

24 Tom Timmermans 2-4 2-2 2 4 6

TEAM 6

200 TOTALS 25-64 20-29 39 11 80

3-point fg-fga included in totals above: Thomas 6-10, Cornette 2-3, Quinn 2-5, Falls 0-2. TOTALS: 10-20 (50 percent).

CONNECTICUT (74)

min fg ft rb pf tp

28 Charlie Villanueva 4-12 1-2 9 2 9

23 Denham Brown 1-7 1-2 3 3 3

38 Emeka Okafor 10-17 4-4 9 4 24

29 Ben Gordon 8-16 2-2 3 4 22

34 Taliek Brown 2-7 0-0 4 4 4

1 Hilton Armstrong 0-0 0-0 0 1 0

13 Josh Boone 2-5 0-0 5 1 4

7 Shamon Tooles 0-0 0-0 3 0 0

27 Rashad Anderson 3-7 0-0 5 4 8

TEAM 3

200 TOTALS 30-71 8-10 44 23 74

3-point fg-fga included in totals above: Gordon 4-7, Anderson 2-3, Villaneuva 0-2, D. Brown 0-4. TOTALS: 6-16 (37.5 percent)

Halftime score: Connecticut 38, Notre Dame 35.

Shooting: Notre Dame 25-64 (39.1 percent) Connecticut 30-71 (42.3 percent).

Assists: Notre Dame 11 (Thomas 5), Connecticut 20 (T. Brown 9).

Turnovers: Notre Dame 4 (Jones 2), Connecticut 11 (Gordon 3, Anderson 3).

Officials: Mike Kitts, John Clougherty and Ted Hillary.

Attendance: 11,418.

Staff writer Tom Noie:

tnoie@sbtinfo.com

(574) 235-6153

Each week during the college basketball season, NDI takes a look back at a memorable Irish game with a reprint of the story that appeared in the South Bend Tribune.

This week's Irish Rewind rolls back 13 years to another season when Notre Dame was desperate for a win in league play. Sound familiar?

The Irish had lost three in a row and six of eight with fifth-ranked Connecticut coming to town. But Notre Dame delivered from all angles.

Guards Chris Thomas and Chris Quinn had big games. So did swingman Torrian Jones. and Power forward Rick Cornett. All of it added up to for a much-needed victory.

This story appeared in the Feb. 10, 2004 edition of the Tribune.

If you have a suggestion for Irish Rewind, send it to tnoie@ndinsider.com.