CLEVELAND — Justice may not have been served.
Notre Dame deserved better.
History was close enough to taste.
Close is no comfort. Notre Dame was poised for THE monumental upset; the win nobody thought could happen.
Two poor Irish offensive possessions, in a game filled with great ones, ended the Notre Dame men's basketball team’s amazing run in the Elite Eight Saturday night.
The Irish were the better team throughout most of their 68-66 loss to top-ranked and top-seeded Kentucky.
Big Blue nearly blew it. The Wildcats were in trouble from the start.
This could have been the ultimate bracket-buster.
Midwest Regional third-seeded Notre Dame came up empty on its last two offensive tries — both misses by Jerian Grant — then had Grant’s desperation shot from the corner miss everything as the final horn sounded.
“We’ll go down with him making plays,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said of Grant. “He’s made plays for us all season.”
In the final 1:25 of the game (with the Irish leading 66-64), Grant missed three 3-pointers as the Irish had problems maintaining the flow of their offense that worked so well the rest of the way.
“I don’t know if (the offense) was out of rhythm, or it was a matter of we missed a few shots and they made a few,” said ND senior Pat Connaughton. “It was a great basketball game. If the game would have been five minutes longer, it might have been a different outcome.
“You get yourself in a position to win a game with a jump shot. Sometimes it goes in, sometimes it doesn’t.”
“(With no timeouts at the end), it was tough,” said Irish guard Demetrius Jackson. “The guys gave such a great effort. That’s all we can ask for.”
Down one with less than 3 minutes to play. Grant’s five feet beyond the 3-point arc. Shot clock winding down. So what? He felt it and delivered.
Ninety seconds later, up two, Grant had a chance for a mega-basket, but came up short. After Kentucky had tied it, a second straight bad possession ended with Grant having a shot blocked and the shock clock expiring.
That was the beginning of the end for the Irish.
Who was the guy wearing No. 30 for Notre Dame? That wasn’t the same Zach Auguste (20 points, nine rebounds) who labored through a frustrating most of the season. Two fouls early? No probem. Size all around him. Didn’t matter. His stock for future earnings jumped by quantum leaps as he refused to back down from Kentucky continuous roll-out of top-caliber inside talent.
Whether it was Auguste engaging in hand-to-hand combat to come up with an offensive rebound and a basket; Grant swiping a pass during Kentucky’s offensive possession; or Steve Vasturia draining a 3-pointer while on the run, the Irish were effective.
Vasturia’s bomb put Notre Dame up 59-53 with 6 minutes to play.
Five minutes into the second half, the energy level in Quicken Loans Arena was nothing short of amazing. Even with a sea of blue-clad Kentucky fans, the pockets of Irish made plenty of noise. Back-to-back slams by Auguste and Connaughton put the Irish up, 46-42, injected a measure of confidence in the Irish that had been waiting to emerge.
Kentucky was dominant. Notre Dame was dangerous. Dominant is a good thing to be. Dangerous is a wild card.
Tied at halftime, there had to be a foreboding in the Kentucky locker room. The longer the Irish were able to stay within striking distance, the more dangerous they become.
Notre Dame’s approach was to shorten the game. An impressive first half did just that, turning a 40-minute contest into a 20-minute showdown.
“Give Notre Dame credit,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “They came right after us from the beginning. If they make some plays instead of us, they’re going to (the Final Four) instead of us.”
While Kentucky looked like a hockey team making line changes, Notre Dame made do with Bonzie Colson as its only regular sub. About 12 minutes into the game, the Irish appeared to be gassed. Not that it impacted their performance, but the energy necessary to keep up with the Wildcats took its toll.
Connaughton, who stands 6-foot-5, looked more like 5-8 trying to guard 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein.
Didn’t take a rocket scientist to dissect the game plan for both teams: Attack the basket.
Notre Dame’s proficiency from the perimeter and effectiveness from beyond the 3-point arc, coerced Kentucky into extending its defense. When Cauley-Stein extended those long arms on Connaughton, he was hard-pressed to get a shot off.
On the other hand, that extension pulled Kentucky’s bigs from their comfort zone around the basket and opened up some lanes to the hoop — which the Irish took advantage of. By halftime, with the score tied at 31, the Irish had outscored the Wildcats in the paint, 20-18. The only one who struggled among the tall timber was Demetrius Jackson, who was swatted twice.
“(In the second half) I started attacking and looking for open looks,” said Jackson.
Kentucky was just 1-of-3 in 3-pointers in the opening half, while concentrating its offense with inside powers Karl-Anthony Towns (eight points) and Trey Lyles (seven).
“Notre Dame was physical enough that they caused us to miss 10 two-footers in the first half,” said Calipari.
The only thing that kept the Wildcats in the game was 10-of-12 from the free throw line.
“Their length shrinks the court,” said Brey. “The size does get to you over 40 minutes.”
It got to the Irish. After 38 minutes and 35 seconds, everything fell apart.
It was a huge one that got away.