Friday , Mar , 12 , 2004 C.Y. Ellis

No Okafor; no problem for UConn

New York, NY (Sports Network) – Ben Gordon scored 29 points to offset the
absence of Emeka Okafor, as ninth-ranked Connecticut held on for a 66-58
victory over Notre Dame in the quarterfinals of the Big East Tournament at
Madison Square Garden.

Charlie Villanueva contributed 16 points and 13 rebounds, while Josh Boone
added eight points and 16 boards for the second-seeded Huskies (25-6), who
will play Villanova in Friday’s semifinals. Villanova pulled off a 69-66 upset
of Providence later Thursday.

Okafor did not dress because of a back injury that has been described as a
stress fracture. An examination determined he probably won’t do any more
damage by playing and he could suit up on Friday, as long as he can withstand
the pain.

“Down, in my opinion, far and away the best player in America, I put a
challenge out to this team,” Connecticut head coach Jim Calhoun said. “I told
each one of them, we’re more than just Emeka Okafor. This was an opportunity
for us to show we’re a very, very good basketball team with some very good
players.”

Despite Okafor’s absence, Connecticut held a commanding 53-32 advantage on the
boards.

Chris Thomas scored 19 points and Rick Cornett added 15 for Notre Dame
(17-12), which is squarely on the bubble for an NCAA Tournament bid. Chris
Quinn chipped in 14 points in defeat.

“We’re 7-3 in our last 10 games and three games against these guys and we won
one of them,” Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey said about his team’s NCAA
Tournament resume. “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.”

Notre Dame never led in the second half, but got close on a couple of
occasions. The last time came at 59-56 with about three minutes to play.

Gordon and Boone then missed for UConn and the Irish had a chance to tie it,
but Thomas missed a three-pointer with two minutes remaining.

The Huskies answered this time with a layup by Gordon, who then drained a
three-pointer on the next UConn possession to make it a 64-56 game with 48
seconds left.

“The coach said you need to score right now and get a couple of stops. I was
fortunate enough to get to the basket and finish,” Gordon said about the final
minutes.

The Irish couldn’t recover.

Notre Dame trailed 37-28 at the intermission, but opened the second half with
a 12-4 run. Thomas scored the first six points of the burst and Quinn hit a
pair of three-pointers to cap it, pulling the Irish within 41-40.

The Huskies then reeled off 13 of the following 17 points to open some
breathing room. Gordon scored four during the spurt and hit a jumper with just
over nine minutes left to give Connecticut a 54-44 advantage.

Again Notre Dame crept back, as three-pointers by Quinn and Thomas fueled an
8-3 run that drew the Irish within 57-52.

After a bucket by Villanueva, Thomas hit a jumper and Cornett scored inside to
make it a 59-56 game with just over three minutes left.

UConn raced out to a 14-4 lead behind six points from Boone, who started in
place of Okafor. A three-point play by Gordon gave the Huskies a 22-11 cushion
midway through the opening half.

Notre Dame pulled within six at 26-20 on a jumper by Thomas with just over six
minutes left in the half, but UConn answered with an 11-4 burst.

Gordon capped the surge with a three-pointer and two free throws for a 37-24
advantage, and the Huskies went into the break with a 37-28 lead.

Villanueva also had four blocked shots.

Thomas made only 1-of-10 three-point tries.

UCONN NOTREDAME