Late Kentucky free throws sink Notre Dame's upset bid

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

CLEVELAND — With the ball in his hands, a trip to the Final Four for the taking and a chance to extend a special season another week right there, Notre Dame guard Jerian Grant believed he could be the one to close it out Saturday against undefeated and top-ranked Kentucky.

The ultimate closer came up empty.

Grant got one of his patented step-back, fade-away 3-pointers to fall at the end of a shot-clock situation, but couldn’t get anything else to go despite three chances over the final 1:25 of a close game. When Grant came up empty and the ball stopped moving, third-seeded and double-digit underdog Notre Dame found itself on the receiving end of a crusher 68-66 loss to Kentucky in the Midwest Regional championship at Quicken Loans Arena.

“It was bad play-calling by me,” Grant said of the final offensive sequences. “I tried to make an isolation play when we should have just moved the ball like we did all year.”

Grant guessed that the Irish followed the game plan to perfection for 39 of a possible 40 minutes. Those other 60 seconds, he put on himself. He messed up, and the Irish are going home because of it, he reasoned.

“We really controlled the game and were in position to take over the game,” he said. “It’s extremely tough to know how close we were to doing something so special.

“And now, it’s over. No more games.”

Grant finished with 15 points and six assists, but shot just 4-of-14 from the field. When it was over, he wished he had the chance to do it all a little differently. And he would have.

“The ball was in my hands,” he said. “I had the call to make an isolation play or call a set and I called an isolation play. It’s tough. If I could go back, we would move the ball around a little bit more.

“I got great looks. They just didn’t go in.”

Notre Dame led by six with 6:13 remaining and by four with 4:28 to play, but couldn’t close out it out, because it couldn’t do what it felt it could do better than anybody else time and again this season. At home, on the road — execute game situations.

The Irish went scoreless the final 2:33.

“Very cruel,” said coach Mike Brey. “It ends fast, man. I don’t know if we’ll be able to digest it all tonight.”

Kentucky (38-0) advances to face Wisconsin in a national semifinal next Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium. Notre Dame sees a season for the ages end at 32-6.

It had all the makings of another Saturday night special for Notre Dame. Two weeks after capturing its first Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship in school history. One week after advancing to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2003.

This one was there. Then it wasn’t.

One Irish stop, and it would have been on to overtime.

Kentucky's Andrew Harrison went to the free throw line with the score tied at 66 and six seconds remaining. Harrison had driven hard to the hoop and drew a blocking call on Irish guard Demetrius Jackson.

“The best I can do is give all my effort,” Jackson said when asked about the blocking call. “We played our game. They played their game, and we just fell a little short.”

“It was close, but he moved,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said of the call.

Harrison made both free throws to set up one final chance for Notre Dame. The Irish had no timeouts. Grant raced the ball up the far side of the floor, but his off-balance contested 3 from the corner missed long, and the season was over.

His career was over.

“He got us that far, so we live with that,” Brey said of Grant coming up empty.

Zach Auguste led the Irish with 20 points on 10-of-13 shooting.

“I was fed up hearing that they were going to beat us up in the paint,” Auguste said. “I took that personally, I took that as a challenge. I tried to do the best that I could, but we fell short.”

Each team scored 40 points in the paint.

With the score tied at 66, Notre Dame had one second to shoot on the shot clock with 34.7 seconds remaining after officials determined a loose ball had been knocked out of bounds by Kentucky on the Irish end of the floor. The Irish came back out of the timeout and committed a shot-clock violation. They couldn’t get a shot off and committed their first turnover of the half.

Their only turnover of the half and seventh of the game.

That gave the ball back to Kentucky with 33.7 seconds remaining.

This one was going to hinge on game situations with the Irish up one and 3:45 remaining. And it was Aaron Harrison who delivered first. Harrison’s wing 3 gave the Wildcats their first advantage in nearly 13 minutes. His bucket made it 64-63 Wildcats with 3:14 left.

Not to be outdone, Grant beat the shot clock with a bail-out 3 seemingly from the Lake Erie shores to give the Irish a 66-64 lead with 2:33 left.

With more and more of the Quicken Arena crowd on their feet as the minutes passed, Steve Vasturia pushed the Irish lead to six with 6:13 remaining on a trail 3 following a Grant steal. The Irish seemingly could sense it. But back came the Wildcats, who promptly sliced the deficit on half with a Tyler Ulis 3.

“”We put ourselves in really good position,” Vasturia said. “We had our chances.”

Playing in front of a decidedly pro-Kentucky crowd, keeping some game pressure on the nation’s No. 1 team was sure to work in Notre Dame’s favor. The Irish did that and more in a first half that saw them lead by as many as four. The Irish got a big boost — massive — late in the period when Bonzie Colson made a steal, a layup, drew a foul and made a free throw to give Notre Dame a two-point lead with 25.4 seconds remaining.

Notre Dame looked like it held on the final defensive possession, only to have the lanky Trey Lyles tip in a missed shot at the horn and tie it at 31 at the break. Kentucky never led by more than two in the opening half.

Each team made exactly one 3-pointer in the first 20 minutes, which featured 10 ties and 13 lead changes.

Working almost exclusively with ball movement and player movement and no screen-roll that cut up Wichita State two nights earlier, the Irish weren’t shy about picking their spots to attack the basket. And they did attack.

The size differential left Pat Connaughton, at 6-foot-5 guarding 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein on the defensive end. The lanky Cauley-Stein, a former tight end, made Connaughton look like he was barely six feet tall.

Among those who took in Saturday’s game was New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Irish standouts Austin Carr and John Paxson, and Cavaliers megastar LeBron James.

KENTUCKY 68, NOTRE DAME 66

NOTRE DAME (32-6)

Pat Connaughton 3-10 1-2 8, Zach Auguste 10-13 0-1 20, Demetrius Jackson 1-7 0-0 2, Jerian Grant 4-14 6-7 15, Steve Vasturia 6-8 2-2 16, V.J. Beachem 0-0 0-0 0, Bonzie Colson 2-4 1-1 5. Totals 26-56 10-13 66.

KENTUCKY (38-0)

Karl-Anthony Towns 10-13 5-6 25, Willie Cauley-Stein 3-5 0-0 6, Trey Lyles 4-10 1-2 9, Aaron Harrison 2-7 1-2 6, Andrew Harrison 0-2 7-8 7, Marcus Lee 1-1 0-0 2, Devin Booker 4-6 0-0 10, Tyler Ulis 1-3 0-0 3, Darkari Johnson 0-0 0-2 0. Totals 25-47 14-20 68.

Halftime--Tied 31-31. 3-Point Goals--Notre Dame 4-14 (Vasturia 2-3, Connaughton 1-4, Grant 1-6, Jackson 0-1), Kentucky 4-8 (Booker 2-3, Ulis 1-1, Aa. Harrison 1-3, An. Harrison 0-1). Fouled Out--None. Rebounds--Notre Dame 28 (Auguste, Connaughton 9), Kentucky 29 (Lyles, Towns 5). Assists--Notre Dame 16 (Grant 6), Kentucky 8 (Towns 4). Total Fouls--Notre Dame 14, Kentucky 12. A--19,464.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

Kentucky's Andrew Harrison, top, is fouled by Notre Dame's Demetrius Jackson (11) during the second half of a college basketball game in the NCAA men's tournament regional finals, Saturday, March 28, 2015, in Cleveland. Harrison made his two free throws to give Kentucky a 68-66 win and a trip to the Final Four. (AP Photo/David Richard)