Irish seek season's second win over Connecticut
By KATHLEEN O'BRIEN
Assistant Sports Editor
The Irish are within striking distance of going 2-2 against the defending national champion, a feat never before accomplished by a men's basketball team at Notre Dame.
"We're going to try," first year head coach Matt Doherty said. "I think the crowd will definitely help us."
Notre Dame (14-10, 5-5 Big East) scored a huge upset victory in knocking off conference rival Connecticut 75-70 Jan. 5.
"When our kids feel threatened, they really bear down and play hard and execute," Doherty said. "Maybe it's the fear factor."
That win was Notre Dame's second of the season over a team that danced its way to the Final Four last year, adding UConn (17-5, 6-3) to Ohio State on the list of teams taken down by Notre Dame.
"We just get up for those games," sophomore star forward Troy Murphy said. "We relish the fact that a top-ranked team like Connecticut can come into our court. We look forward to playing the teams like Connecticut, Syracuse, St. John's."
The Cinderalla-esque win caused Irish fans and enemies alike to realize this squad is for real. It pumped up Irish fans, drawing in hordes of people to the Joyce Center. This Saturday's Notre Dame-UConn rematch sold out just a week after the first contest between the two teams, leaving those without tickets out in the cold, a rare occurrence during recent years of mediocrity in Notre Dame basketball.
"We've been playing pretty well," junior point guard Martin Ingelsby said, "and I think everyone around Notre Dame is getting more excited about basketball."
The Irish stunned the Huskies by beating them earlier in the season, handing the Huskies their second defeat of the season and the first on their home court.
Murphy opened their eyes with 33 points and 16 rebounds. With that spectacular performance, Murphy personally showed the Huskies that their guard Khalid El-Amin is by no means assured the status of Big East Player of the Year.
El-Amin ranks fifth in the conference in scoring with 17.5 points per game, but Murphy leads the league in two categories with his 23.2 points per outing and 10.9 rebounds.
"We've got to contain Khalid El-Amin from scoring and execute our offense," Murphy said.
Junior guard Albert Mouring and senior forward Kevin Freeman both average in double digits for Connecticut.
For Notre Dame, sophomore forward David Graves and freshman guard Matt Carroll each average more than 10 points per game.
Notre Dame is looking to rebound from disappointing losses at Pittsburgh and Villanova.
"We just have to keep our focus and keep to our game plan," Murphy said. "We've gotten away from our game plan the past couple of games."
Doherty elaborated on Irish troubles of late.
"We needed to get our cage shook up a little bit," he said. "Maybe we started feeling too sure of ourselves. I'm going to try to deliver a bit of a wake-up call in practice."
It will take an inspired and error-free performance to deliver a second loss to Connecticut. Connecticut has only lost three times since falling to Notre Dame, with two of the three defeats coming at the hands of foes ranked in the top five in the nation — Syracuse and Michigan State.
"We need to make sure we get good shots," Doherty said. "That will help us, not only in field goal percentage, but keeping them from running the break. We need to get back in transition, and be very active in our zone and box out."
Keeping turnovers at a minimum could prove crucial for the Irish, who have struggled in that area.
"We've got to take care of the ball," Ingelsby said. "We know that we can go out and play with one of the top teams in the country in Connecticut."
Chalking up a win has depended most strongly on two factors for the Irish this season — home court advantage and Murphy's scoring output.
With the crowds coming out in force to home games, the Joyce Center has turned into a tough arena for opponents. The Irish have taken full advantage of the home court support, holding a 12-2 record at the JACC. Their play on the road has been unpredictable, however. They sit at 2-8 away from home, with the two road victories coming against the most formidable opponents in UConn and Ohio State.
"I don't think it's jitters on the road," Doherty said. "It's more of the energy we get from the home crowd that we obviously don't get on the road. You have to create that for yourself on the road, and we haven't been able to do that."
In all but one of Notre Dame's losses this season, opponents held Murphy below his scoring average.
"I think it's an important figure, but not a crucial figure," Doherty said. "Other guys need to step up at times.
"I think he [Murphy] is capable of having those days [like against Connecticut] every day," Doherty added. "He hit his shots, the guys got him the ball. But if teams take that opportunity away, we need some other guys to step up and score."
All Sports Stories for Friday, February 11, 2000