Irish falter 68-66 despite near perfect performance against Kentucky in Elite 8
Kentucky players spilled onto the court near the Notre Dame bench, knowing their perfect season still had a heartbeat. Up in the stands, Big Blue Nation could breathe a sigh of relief and start planning its trip to Indianapolis.
In the farthest corner of the court, Jerian Grant sat with an emotionless glare on his face. Pat Connaughton bit his jersey and put his arms over his head in disbelief. The Irish faithful lowered their signs and removed their headgear in dismay.
Notre Dame (32-6) fell to Kentucky (38-0) 68-66 after dominating the majority of the contest. The dream ended for the Fighting Irish in a matter of seconds.
With the score knotted at 66 and the clock winding down, Andrew Harrison drew a foul from Demetrius Jackson and converted both free throws from the charity stripe.
Grant took the inbounds pass with 6 seconds remaining, dribbled up the far side of the court all the way to the corner, and heaved a three over the outstretched arms of Willey-Cauley Stein and several other Wildcat players. The shot sailed inches over the rim as the buzzer sounded.
Kentucky survived a major scare on the way to what could be the first undefeated season for a men’s basketball team since Indiana made the run in 1976.
“We didn’t play very well and Notre Dame, I thought, controlled the whole thing, but we made the plays,” Kentucky coach John Calipari explained. “We figured out a way to win it. We’re just saying one more game, play our best. We’ve had other tests, but we have a will to win.”
Karl-Anthony Towns led the way for the Wildcats with a team high 25 points and Devin Booker followed with 10 points. Willey-Cauley Stein was held in check, amassing only 6 points and four rebounds in 33 minutes of action. Towns praised the Irish and their playing ability, saying if there was one team Kentucky truly wanted to face off against in the Elite 8, it was Notre Dame.
Notre Dame proved it could take on a giant in the postseason. It was so close to toppling one Saturday night.
“We had them where we wanted,” Zach Auguste said.
Auguste put together the best performance of his career when the stakes were highest. The junior had 9 rebounds and collected 20 points on 10 of 13 shooting from the field. He played like a man possessed, going in for monster dunks and fending off some of the most highly touted players in the game for Kentucky.
Steve Vasturia paced the Irish with 16 points and Grant followed with 15 points and 6 assists.
“It’s tough,” said Grant. “Just to be so close to making history, from doing something so special and just like that it’s over. We felt we played well enough to win.”
The teams battled back and forth in a first half that involved 13 lead changes and 10 ties. Kentucky knotted the score at 31-31 with a put-back basket as time expired at the half. Less than two minutes into the second half, the Wildcats rattled off quick baskets courtesy of Towns to take a 38-33 lead.
Notre Dame proceeded to go on a 13-4 run over the next four minutes, highlighted by a Pat Connaughton dunk that sat actress and Kentucky supporter Ashley Judd in her seat.
The Irish dazzled with crisp passing and offensive execution, picking apart a Kentucky defense ranked third in the nation in points allowed. Notre Dame finished the night with more assists, a better shooting percentage, and nearly matched the Cats’ 29 rebounds with 28 of its own. In the end, it still was not enough.
“We’re extremely disappointed. We really thought we had a great chance of beating them, and I thought we displayed that,” Coach Mike Brey said afterward. “But I think you’ve got to give them credit, they made some big plays, they made some timely 3-point shots at key times.”
Kentucky will move on to face Wisconsin in Indianapolis for a chance to move on to the National Championship.
Notre Dame will say goodbye to seniors Grant and Connaughton, both of whom have prosperous professional careers ahead of them in different sports. Grant figures to be a top pick in the NBA draft, while Connaughton will soon make his way to the Baltimore Orioles’ farm system as a pitcher.
Grant was chosen as an Associated Press First Team All-American and a Wooden Award Finalist. He is the first Irish player to receive First Team accolades since Troy Murphy did so back in 2001.
Jonathan Mehall is a senior at Holy Cross College majoring in communication with a minor in sports management. Contact Jonathan at firstname.lastname@example.org.