Noie: How Notre Dame men's basketball pulled off upset of No. 10 Kentucky

Tom Noie
ND Insider
Dec 11, 2021; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Kentucky Wildcats forward Keion Brooks Jr. (12) goes up for a dunk in the first half against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at the Purcell Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Following are NDI beat writer/columnist Tom Noie’s top three storylines/observations and other odds and ends/notes and quotes from Saturday’s non-conference contest between No. 10 Kentucky and Notre Dame, won by the Irish, 66-62. 

► Saturday marked exactly one month since Notre Dame started the regular season, but it wasn’t too early to say that the Irish already were at a crossroads. 

Losses in three straight and four of the last five. No power conference wins. Embarrassed in its Atlantic Coast Conference opener eight days earlier against cellar-dweller Boston College. 

How would Notre Dame respond? Like a desperate team or that one that played in Conte Forum the previous Friday – seemingly just happy to be there? 

We got that answer Saturday night. Big effort from the home team. Big effort from Blake Wesley with the deciding jumper with 11.1 seconds remaining.

► This was a really close game for the majority of the game, often played within a window where one team never led by more than four points. But it seemed such a huge hurdle for Notre Dame, which couldn't get over the three-, or two- or one-point hurdle without some serious effort.

Even when the Irish led, it seemed that would last maybe 16-17-18 seconds before the Wildcats had an answer. It was the ultimate grind of a game for the home team. The Irish then ripped off an 11-1 run to flip a five-point deficit into a five-point lead with 3:39 remaining.

They just had to close.

► Basketball Hall of Famer Pat Riley was the first to say it back in the day when the Los Angeles Lakers were trying to figure out a way to beat the Boston Celtics for an NBA world championship. 

No rebounds, no rings. 

No rings were at stake Saturday, but if Notre Dame was to have any chance of beating Kentucky, it better rebound. Everyone rebound. Gang rebound. Rebound against the No. 1 team in the country in rebounding margin (+19.0) like their lives – this season – depended on it. Get to the glass every single possession. Do that and the Irish might have a chance at a special night. 

The Irish were good in the first half, allowing Kentucky only a (+1) rebounding advantage. But there was slippage, with the Wildcats sometimes quicker to the ball and the missed shot on the offensive end.

Midway through the second half, the Irish even had a 24-23 rebounding advantage, but couldn't keep from fouling, which allowed Kentucky to grab free points at the foul line.

But this stayed competitive because the Irish took care of the backboard, finishing with a 33-28 advantage.

Who’s hot? 

How about Purcell Pavilion, which sounded alive after waaaaaay too long of a time being a slumber party. The fans in the stands were on their feet during a key 11-1 Irish run late in the second half, to the point where it made it tough to see the action from the media seating up top.

We'll take that problem. Sure beats fans wanting to get a jump on traffic with three minutes remaining, right? Yeah, you know who you are. Good to have to stick around a little while longer on a cold winter's night.

The old place rocked at times Saturday. It was nice.

Notre Dame's Dane Goodwin (23) competes for the ball with Kentucky's Oscar Tshiebwe (34) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Robert Franklin)

Who’s not? 

Kentucky’s perimeter, which obviously didn’t read the scouting report, or follow through on it very well. Notre Dame came into the contest ranked 346th out of 350 Division I teams for 3-point field goal percentage defense. Opposing teams have feasted on Notre Dame’s lack of defense from the 3-point line this season. 

Shooting 32.7 percent from 3 coming in, Kentucky promptly went 0-for-10 from 3 in the first half. It didn’t hit a 3 until Kellen Grady connected to give the Wildcats a four-point lead. They missed their first 13.

Mar 28, 2015; Cleveland, OH, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish guard Jerian Grant (22) dribbles defended by Kentucky Wildcats forward Willie Cauley-Stein (15) in the finals of the midwest regional of the 2015 NCAA Tournament at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

History lesson 

No game between Kentucky and Notre Dame can ever be played or mentioned or thought about without memories of a certain Saturday night in March in a certain rust belt city with a trip to a certain Final Four on the line. 

Anytime Kentucky and Notre Dame play, be it last season in Rupp Arena where the Irish won for the first time in school history or Saturday at Purcell Pavilion, you’re reminded of that 2015 Midwest Regional Final at then-Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. 

If you were there, you know. There are high-level energy games and then there’s that night, when Notre Dame was 14:24 away (and up four points) then 2:39 (up two) from advancing to its first Final Four since 1978. 

It went from everything to nothing like that. Kentucky won it, 68-66, but it was a game for the ages. The big plays from that Irish outfit that had earlier that month won the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament by beating Duke and North Carolina in consecutive nights on Tobacco Road. The energy of the Quicken Loans Arena crowd. The everything. 

It was as good as college basketball gets, as good as Notre Dame basketball has been in years. May ever be. 

Dec 11, 2021; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Former Notre Dame Fighting Irish basketball player LaPhonso Ellis speaks after being added to the Notre Dame Ring of Honor during halftime of the game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Kentucky Wildcats at the Purcell Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Worth noting 

At halftime of Saturday’s game, former Irish standout LaPhonso Ellis became the ninth member of the Notre Dame men’s basketball program inducted into the Ring of Honor. A banner with his No. 20 now hangs in the arena rafters alongside the likes of former Irish Austin Carr, Adrian Dantley, Luke Harangody, Tommy Hawkins, Troy Murphy, David Rivers and Kelly Tripucka. 

► Noie:There may be better players, but not many better people than ND great LaPhonso Ellis

Also up there is former Irish coach Digger Phelps. 

Harangody was the first to go in during his Senior Night in 2010, which should’ve never, ever, ever happened in front of Carr and Dantley, but that’s a discussion for another day. 

Each time the program honors a former player, the most popular question is, who’s next? There’s no right or wrong answer, but the next guy to go in has to come from a group of Pat Garrity, Moose Krause, John Paxson, John Shumate and Chris Thomas, right? Once those guys go up, you start getting into the recent roster of guys like Bonzie Colson, Pat Connaughton, Jerian Grant, Tory Jackson and Steve Vasturia. 

Worth quoting 

“I came to Notre Dame to play against the best. I just hated losing.” 

- LaPhonso Ellis 

Nov 16, 2021; South Bend, Indiana, USA; The Notre Dame Leprechaun carries a cheerleader during a timeout in the second half of the game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the High Point Panthers at the Purcell Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

By the numbers 

► 1: With 10:37 to play, the Irish had only one player in double figures for points – freshman Blake Wesley, who drilled a 3 to give him 10 at that time. A 3 from Trey Wertz with 7:41 remaining pushed him into double figures, also with 10. 

► 3: Irish power forward Paul Atkinson, Jr.., has scored fewer than 10 points in his last three games – Kentucky, Boston College and Illinois. It’s the longest streak of games where he hasn’t scored double figures since late in his sophomore season (2018-19) when he went the last six games of the regular season. 

► 4: When his career ended in 1992, Ellis was only the fourth player in school history to finish with at least 1,000 points (1,505) and 1,000 rebounds (1,075). 

► 7: Brey went only seven deep in the rotation, one fewer than the previous week at Boston College.

► 9.: Number of NBA scouts credentialed for the game, highest for an Irish home game this season. Other than freshman Blake Wesley, they might have all been in town to see the other team’s guys. Again. 

► 100: Face-value cost of a lower-level seat for Saturday’s game. 

► 1,048: Number of days since Notre Dame last played a home game in front of a sellout (9,149) crowd. That last happened on Jan. 28, 2019 against Duke when freshman power forward Zion Williamson made his first and only appearance at Purcell pavilion, which ended in an 83-61 Irish loss. 

Saturday’s game was not a sellout. It sounded like one. 

Indiana and the final Crossroads Classic is next on the Notre Dame schedule.

Next up 

Notre Dame gets another week off – which coincides with final exams – before returning to action Saturday, Dec. 18 against Indiana at the annual Crossroads Classic in what is now Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. It’s the final year of the Crossroads, which had a nice 11-year run, but it’s just time for the teams (also Butler and Purdue) to move on to something else. 

Irish coach Mike Brey and Hoosiers coach Mike Woodson have discussed starting a traditional home-and-home – one game one year at Assembly Hall, another game the following year at Purcell Pavilion. The teams also may be future opponents in the annual ACC/Big Ten Challenge. 

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI