Noie: When the lights were bright, this Notre Dame men's basketball team finally delivered

Tom Noie
ND Insider
Fans rushed the court to celebrate following Notre Dame's win over Kentucky in an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Robert Franklin)

SOUTH BEND — Once a staple of the standard that Notre Dame men’s basketball had been, the sound bite strangely surfaced on a Saturday night that promised to be special. 

But would it? Could it? This was an Irish team coming off such a rock bottom — if one can exist so early in the long haul of a college basketball season — that nobody really expected it to actually happen. Beat No. 10 Kentucky? Yeah, sure. Not this group, which had been kicked around for so many seasons past without NCAA tournament trips. Without much success. 

Without much magic. 

That’s what made the audio clip played in Purcell Pavilion during a moment Saturday so cringe-worthy. 

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This Irish group, this senior-saturated group that has been more potential and promise than production had never delivered in a way for the clip to be played. Ever. It’s of Irish coach Mike Brey from the program’s salad days when it was routinely winning 10-plus games in the Atlantic Coast Conference and going on deep dives through the NCAA tournament. When, like the woman sings before tip at home games, there was a magic at the sound of the Notre Dame name. 

“When the lights are bright....” Brey’s voice boomed over a building that rocked and rolled like those nights in 2015 and 2016, “the freakin' Irish deliver.” 

Previously when the clip was played in previous seasons, Notre Dame actually edited out "freakin." Scrubbed it, made it like it was never said. But that word, that emotion made that clip what it was. Gave it an edge. Hearing those words, at the time Saturday, long before anything was decided, was like nails across a basketball blackboard, back when coaches still used blackboards.

Make it stop. Make these Irish earn it, even when they were down five with 8:09 remaining. Like, here's your moment. Seize it. Find a way to win one of these.

Think they earned it, seized it. 

South Bend native Blake Wesley drilled a 15-foot pull-up jumper with 11.7 seconds remaining for the go-ahead basket in a 66-62 victory for a team that had lost three straight and four of five and looked really lousy in doing it. 

“That’s kind of like storybook, right?” Brey said. “South Bend guy goes to 15 feet and knocks it down.” 

And delivers. Before Saturday, when the lights were bright and the stage was big, Notre Dame never really could. Prior to Wesley’s late-game wizardry, Notre Dame had not beaten a Top 10 team since Nov. 22, 2017 when then-No. 6 Wichita State wilted in the Maui Jim Maui Invitational championship. Prior to Saturday, Notre Dame had not beaten a Top 10 team at home since then-No. 9 Louisville fell Jan. 4, 2017.  

That feels a lifetime ago, a time that many feared we might not again see. Not from this core. Maybe not from this head coach. 

When the lights have been bright and the stage has been big and it was time to deliver, the Irish just couldn’t. Or wouldn’t. It wasn’t in their DNA. It always was the other guys getting the defensive stops and making the big shots. Those were the guys who were always delivering, while the Irish too often were left to pick up the pieces, and wonder when it would be their time. 

When would THEY make the big stop? 

When would THEY make the big shot? 

When would THIS GROUP deliver when the stage was big and the lights were bright and a big game against a big-time opponent was there for the taking? 

Let the freshman from just down the street offer all the answers. Game tied at 62 after an Irish defensive stop and a big-time/big-moment rebound from Wesley, Brey called a timeout with 28 seconds remaining. 

Notre Dame's Blake Wesley (0) shoots the game-winning shot during Notre Dame's win over Kentucky in an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Robert Franklin)

Over in the huddle, with the joint jumping and the band playing and the fans refusing to get a start on beating the traffic out of the Joyce lots like they did for so many seasons, Brey designed a play where the ball was supposed to go to power forward Paul Atkinson, Jr.  That set fizzled, so it was basically put the ball in the hands of Wesley, who had it plenty last season at Riley, but that was in the Northern Indiana Conference, not this big-time moment. 

“I just went to work,” Wesley said. “It’s amazing how I just did that in front of everybody. It was enjoyable. It means the world to me.” 

Coffee is for closers, and the Irish finally closed 

Having worked on pull-up jumpers the previous two days, you know, just in case, Wesley knew somewhere in the recesses of his basketball mind that that shot may be the best option. It sure was. Wesley gathered himself between the top of the key and the center circle and then, just went and made a play. Three dribbles. One hard drive. The pull-up. The bucket. The game. 

Wesley went and made a play that guys last year and the year before and the year before that couldn’t or wouldn’t make. Made a play like some of the former Irish in the arena stands — there's Tory Jackson, there’s Kyle McAlarney, there’s Colin Falls — would make. Made a play like former Irish guard Pat Connaughton, tweeting during the game's final moments, would go and make. Made a play that sent the place up for grabs.

From a morgue to madness. 

“It,” Wesley said, “was just there.” 

But first, one more play. One more stop. The way this season has gone, the way the last few weeks have gone, you almost expected — feared — Kellan Grady dropping in a clean look from 3 as the horn expired. A crusher. But there would be no clean look. No 3 at the buzzer. No more close-but-not-close-enough, no good-but-not-good-enough scenarios for the Irish to stomach again for the next few days. 

Just a stop, a throw ahead from Wesley to Dane Goodwin and one final two-handed, hang-on-the-rim-dunk to beat the final horn. 

Fans rushed the court as Notre Dame players celebrate following their win over Kentucky in an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Robert Franklin)

That’s when it all felt real. That’s when the students tumbled out of the west stands on across the court. Madness. Pandemonium. Let the Irish hoops times again roll. That’s when the band played and the game went final and Notre Dame had snapped that three-game slide in such non-Notre Dame fashion. 

The magnitude of the evening drained Brey to the point where a source said he was in tears afterward in the locker room. Those close to him said they hadn’t seen him this tightly-wound for a game in a long time. Why now? 

“We certainly needed a night like this,” Brey said. 

In the worst of ways. He needed it. His guys needed it. The program needed it. Athletic director Jack Swarbrick needed it. Not only for this week or this month but for this season, which already had the feel of one slipping away. There it goes again. That’s how much this one meant, to this team, to this season.

We’re only a month into the regular season, but already time seemed running short — running out — for the Irish. Time now may be back on their side after being embarrassed eight days earlier in the ACC opener at Boston College. 

“We could’ve cuddled up and taken Boston College as a sign that we’re going to have a really bad season and just curled up and went away,” Atkinson said. “Coach Brey was on us all week. He wanted us to be better.” 

Now go be even better, Saturday against Indiana in the Crossroads Classic, then two gimmie home games before Christmas, then back into league play. Nobody knows if this win will slingshot these Irish (4-4) through the rest of December and through ACC play after losing to a B.C. team picked to finish last in the conference.

Nobody knows if the good vibrations that bounced around the old building will last a week or a month. Nobody knows if the Irish have finally turned the proverbial corner or gotten over the proverbial hump. 

Nobody knows, not with this group. 

This much we do know: For at least one night, when the stage was big and the lights were bright, these freakin’ Irish delivered.

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

NOTRE DAME 66, NO. 10 KENTUCKY 62

At Purcell Pavilion

KENTUCKY (7-2): Brooks 5-10 2-4 12, Tshiebwe 11-14 3-4 25, Grady 3-8 0-0 8, Washington 3-7 0-0 6, Wheeler 0-5 3-4 3, Mintz 2-7 2-3 6, Toppin 1-2 0-0 2, Hopkins 0-2 0-0 0, Collins 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 25-55 10-15 62.

NOTRE DAME (4-4): Atkinson 5-8 0-0 10, Laszewski 3-8 0-0 7, Goodwin 5-9 3-4 14, Ryan 3-4 0-0 7, Wesley 6-12 0-0 14, Wertz 3-9 4-4 12, Hubb 1-6 0-0 2. Totals 26-56 7-8 66.

Halftime: Kentucky 30-28. 3-Point Goals: Kentucky 2-19 (Grady 2-7, Brooks 0-1, Toppin 0-1, Washington 0-1, Hopkins 0-2, Wheeler 0-2, Mintz 0-5), Notre Dame 7-22 (Wertz 2-4, Wesley 2-5, Goodwin 1-2, Ryan 1-2, Laszewski 1-5, Hubb 0-4). Rebounds: Kentucky 26 (Brooks, Tshiebwe 7), Notre Dame 29 (Atkinson, Goodwin 6). Assists: Kentucky 9 (Washington 5), Notre Dame 15 (Ryan 4). Total Fouls: Kentucky 10, Notre Dame 14. A: 8,283 (9,149).