Noie: Remembering THAT night in Cleveland for Notre Dame men's basketball team

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Five years have passed since everything unfolded inside that big building off Ontario Street in downtown Cleveland, but those sights and sounds and energy and excitement feel like it happened yesterday.

It had been 37 years since the Notre Dame men’s basketball team last reached that fork in the NCAA tournament road — play in a regional final for a chance to go to the Final Four. It might be another 37 years before Notre Dame again gets there. Yet for those who live and breathe Irish basketball, nobody forgets that Saturday night — March 28, 2015 — inside Quicken Loans Arena when No. 3 seed Notre Dame gave an undefeated (37-0) and seemingly unbeatable No. 1 Kentucky team all it could handle in the Midwest Regional Final.

What’s most memorable from that night? Where do you start? It might be hearing those waves of noise. It was just so different, the way the sound surfaced, the way it was sustained, the way it rolled through the building from odd angles at every big-play moment. It was anticipation and excitement and nervousness bundled into bursts. The Irish fan sections were located diagonal the Notre Dame bench (thanks, NCAA), so the cheers and the chants (Let’s...Go...Irish!) seemed a bit misplaced. But with each Irish run, they were there. Everyone paid such close attention, like something special was unfolding in front of their eyes, something nobody wanted to miss.

Of the 19,464 in the arena that night, a good number were for Kentucky. That’s Big Blue Nation — snap up any extra tickets at any cost. Kentucky had the fans; Notre Dame had the building.

The first spot in the Final Four already had been filled. The West Regional final between Arizona and Wisconsin played on the big video board in the media work room earlier that evening. It was a good diversion as the lead up to the 8:49 p.m. tip dragged.

Time that Saturday — cold and crisp and blue skies outside — crawled. One hour felt like five. What to do to speed it all up? Pre-game notes? Done. Pre-game workout? Done. Pre-game meal? Done. Still could go for some of that killer chili at the dive-bar restaurant out by the airport hotel. What time was too early to get to the arena and get set up, get settled? Four hours before tip? Three?

Just get there and get it all going. Lock in on the strongest storylines and be ready to write. Quickly. Once the game started, everything picked up. There was just this feeling that this was Notre Dame’s night. The Irish had previously been to one Final Four in program history. By midnight, that would be two. Book it. These guys, this team, would shock the world.

It was hyped going in, then lived up to it. The game was tied at 31 at half. Twenty more minutes and each possession so precious. The Irish played with precision. There came that crowd noise. It buoyed back and forth with every big play, and there were plenty of them. Steve Vasturia, then just a baby-faced sophomore — two years later, he’d be a baby-faced senior — connecting on a key 3. Zach Auguste, barreling down the lane past Kentucky’s future NBA front line for one of his three rebound dunks.

And the 6-foot-5 Pat Connaughton — playing power forward — seeing an opening start somewhere around Sandusky before taking two hard dribbles and two long strides for that monster two-handed slam, the one where he hung a little longer on the rim and was almost parallel to the floor.

That pushed the Irish up four with 14:24 remaining as CBS cut to a quick shot of a distressed Ashley Judd.

Wearing what could best be described as their mustard gold uniforms with the neon gold-yellow sneakers, the Irish were 12 minutes away. Ten minutes. Eight. Up six with just over six to go, it all felt so real. When Jerian Grant launched a deep 3 with 2:39 remaining, the Irish were up two (Irish back on top! bellowed play-by-play announcer Brian Anderson, subbing for a sick Marv Albert). Notre Dame was believing. It was happening.

Sitting courtside opposite the Irish bench, you started pondering the week ahead. Notre Dame in Indianapolis? For the Final Four? Too good to be true.

It was.

Notre Dame never scored again in a game that featured 12 ties and a staggering 20 lead changes. It was basketball tennis. Back and forth. Serves and volleys and big shots. Big returns. Nobody wanted any of it to end. But the scoreboard clock said it would. Soon.

A Karl-Anthony Towns bucket tied it at 66 with 70 seconds left. Two Andrew Harrison free throws put the Wildcats up 68-66 with six seconds remaining.

Grant had worked so much magic all season that he had to have one trick left as he raced the ball up the far left side of the floor. He’d hit that fade 3 in front of the Irish bench to seal it. Vasturia was floating wide open near the top of the key, but Grant never saw him. His degree-of-difficulty shot sailed long as the horn sounded and it all ended. The game. The season. The dream.

One last bit of business remained. Go to the post-game locker room when a team’s dream season comes to an end. A 15-minute cooling off period for coaches and players to gather their thoughts before the media arrives is way too short. Everything’s still there at the surface, but nothing makes a lot of sense. It’s all too raw.

When the Irish locker room door opened that night, everyone was expected to be sitting in puddles of tears trying to pick up the pieces. Instead, there was a nothingness to it all.

No tears. No anger. No emotion. No anger. Nothing. Few words. Just a completely gassed group of coaches and players sitting in that cramped visitor’s locker room, the complimentary post-game meal on serving carts sitting untouched near the door.

Seven games over 16 days had sapped everything from the Irish. Their emotional and physical and spiritual tanks had run empty. There was nothing else left to give, to say, to point to, to plan for. No more practices. No more games.

After 32 wins in 38 games, it all was over. They had maxed it all out, and then some.

Win that night and Notre Dame likely goes on to win the national championship. That group was that good, that driven, that determined. Easy to say five years later, but easy to see five years ago Saturday night.

You arrived at the arena that afternoon expecting to see something special. Ninety minutes after the final horn, you walk into the quiet of a cold northeast Ohio night — clear skies, moon high — believing you did.

What a ride. Then. Now.

Guard Jerian Grant and Notre Dame had plenty to be excited about during the 2015 Midwest Regional final against undefeated Kentucky at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.
Notre Dame power forward Zach Auguste had 20 points and nine rebounds in the 2015 Midwest Regional final against a Kentucky front line that would go on to play in the NBA.
Former Irish guard Pat Connaughton played power forward during the 2015 Midwest Regional final against No. 1 seed and undefeated Kentucky.