Noie: Win in Rupp Arena one for the history book for Notre Dame
Stepping into one of the cathedrals of college basketball, Notre Dame was given barely a prayer of winning Saturday in Rupp Arena.
There were a few Hail Marys and Our Fathers being said as this one went to the end, and then went final as the Irish made a little hoops history. No Notre Dame team had ever won in eight previous visits to this city. O-for eight.
Make that 1-8 after the Irish held on for a 64-63 victory.
“Wow,” said coach Mike Brey. “I’m really proud of our group. We talked about growing up and getting one of these.”
They got one. A big one.
After this one was over, it likely was a whole lot of Hallelujahs from Irish faithful who’ve waited way too long for a true road win as big as Saturday. Think the win at North Carolina in 2015, or the win at Duke the following season. Those were big because they were Atlantic Coast Conference games. And also, like Saturday, first-timers. This one was big because, well, it’s Kentucky.
Teams just don’t go into that barn of a building and do what the Irish did. Then they did it.
This one wasn’t assured until Olivier Sarr’s jumper from the corner didn’t drop in the closing seconds. Notre Dame (2-2) did everything right to put itself in position to win this one, then did seemingly everything wrong to give it away in the second half. A scan of social media had it as, yep, same old Irish. Watch how they’re going to give another one away.
The Irish never thought that way.
“We talked in the huddle, hey, just stay calm, we’re going to win it,” said junior power forward Nate Laszewski, who scored a team-high 21 points. “Just staying calm in the atmosphere was good for us. It’s a big confidence-booster for us.
“It was really good for us.”
In the end, the law of averages that Brey talks so much about finally swung his program’s way. They earned a program win against a program that wins.
“We’re real happy we were able to finish it out,” Laszewski said. “They threw everything at us that they had. Just being able to stay mentally strong, stay together was really exciting for us.”
Really, the Irish owned this game. They played with the lead for the final 36:52. Sometimes, they played loose and free and easily with it. Sometimes, they played like they were protecting it, holding on for their collective basketball lives. But they never gave it up, even when everything looked like Kentucky would figure it all out.
On this day, the Irish were just better, even after they staggered through a 9:24 stretch without a basket, turned it over five times and weathered a 16-0 Wildcat run. Even then, Notre Dame showed some fight, some resilience, some determination to overcome everything that seemingly was dragging it back to seasons past.
Notre Dame managed only 16 points in the second half. How? Why? In the end, none of it really mattered. The Irish got a win in Rupp. That’s what matters. For this group. For this season. And beyond.
“I loved that we had to play defense to win a game,” Brey said. “It wasn’t anywhere near like it was the first half, where it was just flowing.”
And when it was time to get going, who else but Prentiss Hubb to drive the Irish home. He quarterbacked everything in the first half, then struggled to get into much of anything in the second. But down the stretch, there was Hubb scoring nine of the final 11 Irish points over the last 6:58.
“He’s always bringing energy, swagger, getting a couple buckets late,” Laszewski said.
Wherever the rest of this season goes, the Irish will look back on a rainy, dreary afternoon in Kentucky as a possible turning point. That’s where this group finally did it. That’s where it all started to turn. Brey talked earlier in the week about it being a process for this group. Nowhere in the pages of that process manual did it say go win at Rupp. So the Irish wrote their own script.
And in the process, raised the bar. First time out at Michigan State, Notre Dame was down by as many as 28. The Irish almost led by that many ... in the first half.
It was as if the pent-up frustration of the last three seasons just came pouring out of these guys, right from the start. They weren’t timid. They weren’t overwhelmed by the atmosphere, even in an arena that was relatively empty, though they well could have been. They played the way this program has long played, played the way the last time these teams met in the 2015 Midwest Regional final of the NCAA tournament in Cleveland.
Kentucky (1-4) came into the contest having lost three in a row, which bounced the Wildcats from the national rankings. It’s not the usual Kentucky outfit, but it doesn’t matter. It’s still Kentucky. The history. The brand. The tradition. Go up by 22 points at the break — the largest deficit in freakin’ UK history — and that says something.
Says a lot.
“I know there wasn’t 20,000 (in the stands),” Brey said. “I just liked our maturity and our mental toughness.”
Notre Dame arrived and did what so many past teams have did — moved the ball, took care of the ball and shot the ball. Kentucky looked clueless on how to counter. Check Laszewski, who broke loose for seven quick points the first three-plus minutes? Fine, then the Irish perimeter got going with Dane Goodwin finding different ways to score, Cormac Ryan picking his spots and Hubb running it all.
With 16:08 left in the first half, the Irish were up 9-7. No reason for the Wildcats or their fans or their coach to worry, right? It shouldn’t have been, but the Irish then delivered a sledgehammer to the skull kind of scoring run.
We’ve seen some doozy runs during Brey’s tenure, first in the Big East and then in the ACC. Few would match what the Irish unleashed Saturday. They just kept shooting and scoring. The points piled up as the place went silent and Kentucky called timeouts. The Irish kept the hammer down.
When the run finally ended with 9:20 left in the first half, Notre Dame had ripped off 19 unanswered points tucked nicely inside a 24-2 burst. Like that, it went from a two-point contest to the Irish up 24. Against that program. In that building. Up two dozen.
“That may have been one of the most beautiful 20 minutes I’ve ever witnessed,” Brey said after his team shot 59.3 percent from the field, 54.5 percent from 3 and 90.9 percent from the foul line. “For me to say that, with the offensive lineups we’ve had throughout the years (is) unbelievable.”
Also unbelievable is how the Irish fought through second-half offensive struggles to dig in and keep competing. They played some 1-3-1 zone. They tried to save legs by running as much clock as possible. In the end, it was enough. All of it.
Less than an hour after this one went final, the Irish walked out of the building carrying a little something extra than it did when it arrived earlier that morning.
• NOTRE DAME 64, KENTUCKY 63
At Lexington, Ky.
NOTRE DAME (64): Durham 2-3 0-0 4, Laszewski 6-10 7-7 21, Goodwin 3-8 2-2 9, Hubb 8-17 0-0 18, Ryan 2-8 1-1 6, Djogo 1-3 0-0 3, Zona 1-3 1-2 3, Sanders 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 23-52 11-12 64.
KENTUCKY (63): Jackson 0-1 1-2 1, Sarr 11-16 0-1 22, Boston 5-15 2-2 14, Clarke 6-13 0-0 14, Mintz 3-9 1-1 7, Askew 1-2 0-0 3, Toppin 1-5 0-0 2, Ware 0-0 0-0 0, Fletcher 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 27-62 4-6 63.
Halftime_Notre Dame 48-26. 3-Point Goals_Notre Dame 7-21 (Hubb 2-6, Laszewski 2-6, Goodwin 1-1, Djogo 1-3, Ryan 1-4, Zona 0-1), Kentucky 5-23 (Clarke 2-4, Boston 2-8, Askew 1-2, Fletcher 0-1, Sarr 0-1, Toppin 0-2, Mintz 0-5). Rebounds_Notre Dame 28 (Laszewski 9), Kentucky 28 (Sarr 7). Assists_Notre Dame 9 (Ryan 4), Kentucky 14 (Mintz 4). Total Fouls_Notre Dame 12, Kentucky 16.