The home team had grappled back from six points behind to tie the game, and Purcell Pavilion was getting loud. An intimidating scene for most teams, perhaps, but this UConn men's basketball team has shown several times now that it is cut from unusually leathery cloth, seams tightly woven.
"Three or four times we could have given in," coach Kevin Ollie said, "but we were tough. We played like true champions."
"I like this win better than any of the others, except maybe Michigan State [to open the season]," said Ryan Boatright, who hit four crucial free throws down the stretch to put UConn ahead for good. "We had to stay composed. It was a tough team and a hostile environment. We had to stay together through adversity."
Junior Tyler Olander, who has been tentative and much-maligned this season, stepped up with his best game ever, hitting 8 of 9 from the floor to score 16 points, and pulling in seven rebounds against one of the league's best frontcourt players, Jack Cooley. Shabazz Napier scored 13 points in the first half as UConn rallied back from an eight-point deficit. And Boatright, who scored 14, made the key plays in the final minute.
"When the game is on the line, I'm going to put it in my guards' hands," Ollie said. "Ryan got to the line, and he made those four free throws. We needed that."
UConn (12-3, 2-1 in the Big East), although ineligible for postseason play, is edging ever closer to a win total that would exceed nearly everyone's preseason expectations, and this game, as in the Huskies' overtime loss at Marquette on Jan. 1, illustrated that they can be competitive with any team on their schedule, and on any court. Notre Dame (14-2, 2-1) had won 12 in a row.
"We played with a little bit of the weight of the world on our shoulders," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said, "because it was, 'Wow, we might not be able to get this one,' and that took its toll on us. You have to give Connecticut a lot of credit — the guards are really good, they defend you and they're hard to guard."
"All year, we feel like we haven't been getting the accolades," Napier said. "Nobody is talking about us."
The Huskies, trailing 26-18 with 6:12 to go in the first half, came back to pull even at 29 on Napier's three-pointer with 1:32 left. Napier hit 5 of 6 from the floor to finish the half with 13 points.
"Shabazz kept us in the game with some great shots," Ollie said.
In the second half, Cooley came out of the game after picking up his second foul and UConn started going to Olander down low. And Olander continually powered to the basket as he rarely has in the past. His short jumper, off a Napier assist, put the Huskies ahead for the first time, 36-35, with 16:08 left to play.
"Once Tyler hit a couple of jump shots," Boatright said, "you want to keep rewarding him. He was fighting for rebounds on the defensive end the whole game."
UConn took a four-point lead when Napier spotted the 6-foot Boatright free and connected with an alley-oop pass with 7:40 to go. "It got real quiet after that," Napier said.
A put-back by R.J. Evans gave UConn a six-point lead, and it was looking good before a couple of lost possessions, and a turnover, helped the Fighting Irish claw back. Eric Atkins' jumper tied it at 58 with 1:04 left.
Boatright, playing before a large group of friends and family from Chicago — his mother, Tanesha, edging as close as she could to the floor to yell encouragement — drew a foul as he drove the lane and hit two free throws with 43 seconds left. At the other end, Olander smothered a shot by Jerian Grant and came away with a steal, and Boatright duplicated it on the other end.
DeAndre Daniels, who had nine rebounds, ripped away a couple of important ones in the final seconds, and scored the last three points. Notre Dame, which was averaging 76 points a game, came up 18 points short of that. Atkins scored 18, and Cooley had 14 points and nine rebounds. But after making 7 of their first 10 shots, the Irish hit only 17 of their next 46, or 36.9 percent. And the Huskies outrebounded Notre Dame, 34 to 28.
"We just had to weather the storm," Ollie said. "We're fueled by our defense. If you think you're going to be fueled by offense, you aren't going anywhere. Defense fuels our bus."
"We played together — you can't say that enough. Good things happen when you play for one another. We wrote it on the board — our ultimate goal is 'us.'"