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Notre Dame hangs out in the locker room Friday in Cleveland.

SBT Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ

CLEVELAND – Born into the belly of the beast that is Big Blue Nation, former Notre Dame small forward David Graves has had an up-close view this season of Kentucky’s march toward college basketball history.

The longtime resident of Lexington, Ky., where he works in private business, Graves flew to Cleveland for Thursday’s semifinals on a private plane of a friend who is a Kentucky booster. He plans to be back with his wife and his parents, who are longtime UK season-ticket holders, for Saturday’s Midwest Region championship between No. 3 seed Notre Dame and No. 1 Kentucky.

Can the Irish find a way to beat a team that’s basically been unbeatable?

“That’s been the question 37 times in a row this season,” Graves said late Friday morning from Lexington. “Nobody’s had an answer. It’s really difficult.”

Difficult in that Kentucky has committed to defend this season. The Wildcats are really good because they’ll also guard. Consistently. Whether their shots are falling or not, the Wildcats have still guarded the other guys, which often turns into a long night. Few teams in the country can run waves of similar players into the rotation as Kentucky, where 7-footers replace 7-footers and 6-11 forwards come in for 6-11 forwards.

“They’re just so long and so big and duplicate at every position,” said Graves. “It’s just incredible the depth that they’ve got where all 10 guys are just in sync and dialed in.

“Physically, they’re so dominant. They just humiliate Division I programs.”

Graves believes the Irish have a chance because they believe. The 10th leading scorer in school history (1,746 points) watched in awe Thursday with the way the Irish moved and cut and ran and shot their way past Wichita State. For a good chunk of the second half, it was not only winning basketball, it was beautiful basketball.

“Those kids are competitors, and the competitor in you wants to play Kentucky,” said Graves, who will be seated in the Notre Dame section. “Notre Dame’s got guys with swagger who want to give it their best.

“Once they get past the initial wave of playing Kentucky, it could be a special night.”

Cornette’s call

Having one Notre Dame hoops prediction made weeks ago come true Thursday night wasn’t enough for former Irish power forward Jordan Cornette.

He’s all in on his former team for Saturday.

“I like them to beat Kentucky,” Cornette told the Tribune Friday morning from his offices of CampusInsiders.com in Chicago. “Too many things have aligned with this program for them not to win. It’s destiny with this team. I’m a believer. I’m in.”

Cornette was in weeks ago. During one Friday evening appearance in February on WSBT’s Weekday Sportsbeat, he insisted that this Irish team would go further in the NCAA tournament than the one he was on as a sophomore in 2003. That one got to the Sweet 16. This one’s going to the Elite Eight for the first time since 1979 following Thursday’s win over Wichita State.

“It’s a team that just makes the biggest plays at the biggest moments,” Cornette said. “Watching as a fan, even I get tight when another team makes a run. But they don’t get rattled.

“Everyone’s like, ‘OK, here comes a run, this is how we’re going to respond. They just continue to play.”

Cornette has followed a ritual of sorts since the tournament commenced last week. He meets up in Chicago’s West Loop with former teammates Colin Falls, Zach Hillesland and Kieran Piller to watch a little of the Irish on TV before returning to work as studio analyst. He did it Thursday and will do it again Saturday for the Kentucky game.

“We’re going to find looks,” Cornette said of playing Kentucky. “Can we make shots? If they shoot 50 percent from the field, they’ll win.”

Book it.

Lightning strike

Notre Dame’s second-half eruption of points and productivity against Wichita State – it made eight-straight shots and hit for 33 points in less than 10 minutes to flip a one-point deficit into a 14-point lead — left some wondering exactly when the Irish had unleashed such an efficient effort.

How about less than two weeks earlier against North Carolina in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship game?

With 9:56 remaining against the Tar Heels, the Irish had tallied 54 points and were trailing by nine. Notre Dame then found a really good offensive rhythm to rip off 36 points the rest of the way, including a 24-3 burst in just over six minutes, to finish with 90 points, the eight-point win and the school’s first-ever ACC title.

“When we get on runs like that, it’s really tough to defend us,” said Irish guard Jerian Grant. “We’ve been there before. We’ve been down where teams come back. We know it’s go-time and we went out there and did it.”

The 81 points allowed were a season high for Wichita State.

Tourney tidbits

• Irish senior Pat Connaughton registered the ninth double-double for points and rebounds of the season and 16th of his career Thursday with 16 points and a team-high 10 rebounds.

• Notre Dame trailed Thursday for all of 38 seconds.

• The Irish are 15-3 in games played away from Purcell Pavilion. Notre Dame has won nine in a row away from home dating back to the Feb. 7 loss at Duke.

• Grant has played all 125 minutes of Notre Dame’s three NCAA tournament games. He went all 40 against Northeastern, 45 against Butler and 40 again Thursday.

• Guard Demetrius Jackson tied his career best with four 3-pointers against Wichita State.

• Saturday is the sixth regional final in school history and first for Notre Dame since a 68-60 loss to eventual national champion Michigan State in 1979.

• The Irish are 25-0 when leading by double digits this season. Notre Dame opened a double-digit lead less than five minutes into the Wichita State game and led by as many as 19 late in the second half.

• As of early Friday afternoon, some 1,929 tickets to Saturday’s game remained available on StubHub.com. Prices ranged anywhere from $104.70 to an upper-corner seat on the arena’s second level to a second-level club suite ticket, which was going for $7,317.75.

• The early line installed Kentucky as an 11.5-point favorite.

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