Men's Basketball: Notre Dame had to have this one; it got this one

Tom Noie
ND Insider

LOUISVILLE, Ky. –  When it’s go time, Notre Dame freshman guard Blake Wesley is one tough cat to stop. 

Get the ball in his hands, get him with the floor spaced and get out of the way. Case in point was Saturday with eight minutes and change remaining in a gotta-have Atlantic Coast Conference game against Louisville at KFC Yum! Center. 

There’s still a lot of season left, but any league loss now is just a huge missed opportunity. To make a statement. To make a move in the conference standings. To keep rolling. Can’t keep missing. Gotta hit one. 

Jan 22, 2022; Louisville, Kentucky, USA;  Notre Dame Fighting Irish guard Blake Wesley (0) posts up against Louisville Cardinals guard Jarrod West (13) during the second half at KFC Yum! Center. Notre Dame defeated Louisville 82-70. Mandatory Credit: Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Wesley made sure Notre Dame hit. 

In an entertaining game that featured seven ties and 15 lead changes, Notre Dame had Wesley and Louisville didn’t, and that, honestly, was your game. Notre Dame 82, Louisville 70. 

With a look in his eye that said look out, Wesley was a wave of late-game confidence. Like a panther knowing when and where and how to strike. Patient. Confident. Then he strikes, Like, gimmie this game, I’ve got it. He erupted for nine consecutive points in less than two minutes and a tight seven-man Irish rotation clicked in the same place in the same game for the first time as Notre Dame registered one of those “Holy #$%#!” road moments. 

Wesley led everybody in the building with 22 points, most of those coming when the game was there for the taking. In his 18th college contest, Wesley simply took it. Fighting foul trouble, the South Bend kid knew that it was just time. To make a shot. To make a play. To make a difference. Go do it. He did it.

Shortly after getting tagged with that third foul, Wesley pulled up on the wing for a 3. Book it. When it fell, everything else did as well for the Irish. Right into place. Give him the ball again. Better yet, let him just go and take it. And take the Irish home. 

“I told myself I was coming back in aggressive,” Wesley said. “I came back and finished the game out.” 

How fragile is everything in this league this season? A loss likely would’ve dropped Notre Dame (12-6 overall; 5-2 ACC) off the first page of the 15-team league standings. Maybe to eighth. Or worse. Out of sight, out of mind.

Instead, Notre Dame’s third league road win and eighth victory in its last nine games bumped it into a second-place tie with No. 6 Duke. Second place with what’s coming down the road for the Irish – three straight at home, better be ready Legion – looks and sounds and feels awfully good for this team at this moment. 

“It’s pretty cool,” said senior guard/captain Dane Goodwin. “We needed this one.” 

Having seen his share of Irish basketball growing up, Wesley insisted he knew nothing of the rivalry that developed over the years between Louisville and Notre Dame. All the overtime games. All the great games. The whoa/wow moments from guys like Jerian Grant and Luke Harangody and Garrick Sherman and everyone else who added to a series that became high-drama delivery How many overtimes would the teams play? Who would step in and deliver virtuoso performances? 

“I,” Wesley said when asked of the series history, “have no idea.” 

He did, however, know what the Irish had just done. What he’d done. 

“That was nice,” Wesley said. “I just played my game. I’m like, yeah, it’s time to go.” 

The series had become so one-sided over the years that the juice and the energy of it kind of went away. But it was back in a big way on Saturday as Louisville pulled out all the stops to find a way to get a home league win. It retired guard Russ Smith’s No. 2 jersey at halftime. It had Doctor Dunkenstein, Darrell Griffith, in the house. It had video messages to Smith from former Cardinal guard Peyton Siva. Even Rick Pitino made a video cameo. 

Louisville tried everything. Nothing worked. Not the way Notre Dame and Wesley seemingly flipped the proverbial offensive switch. 

One minute, actually with nine minutes remaining, Notre Dame trailed by three after the first Irish turnover of the second half led to a Jae’lyn Withers run-out and dunk. But just when it looks like everything’s getting away, that's when the lightning strike comes. 

Boy, did it come Saturday. How does a 20-3 scoring strike sound? It left fans slinking off to the bourbon bars and media along press row wondering where that came from. If you've watched the Irish, you've seen it before. It was good to see it again. 

“That’s a little bit of our program there offensively, right?” said Irish coach Mike Brey, who watched his team erase a seven-point halftime deficit and hang 44 on the board in the final 20. “I said to our guys, we’re going to have to score 80 to get out of here today.” 

They did the old coach one bucket better. 

While Wesley’s too young to understand the scope of the Louisville-Notre Dame rivalry and what a win like Saturday means, his backcourt running mate knows. Senior guard/captain Prentiss Hubb had never beaten Louisville in his collegiate career. He played the Cardinals four times and had four losses. So this one was kind of personal. 

Jan 22, 2022; Louisville, Kentucky, USA;  Notre Dame Fighting Irish guard Prentiss Hubb (3) dribbles against Louisville Cardinals forward Samuell Williamson (10) during the first half at KFC Yum! Center. Mandatory Credit: Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

“I do remember all the teams we haven’t beat,” Hubb said. “It does mean something to get a win against this team because they’ve always had our number. It does feel good.” 

Hubb played like it with 12 points, five rebounds, five assists and only one turnover in 35 minutes. His drive and score and free throw all but sealed it with 66 seconds remaining. 

“We fought hard and came back and got a win,” Hubb said. “Once we were able to run our stuff and play at our pace and not their pace, it makes everything easy for us.” 

It looked hella easy. And fun. 

There’s still a lot for this Notre Dame team to do – the rest of the regular season and whatever may come after that. But this group has already beaten Kentucky, beaten North Carolina, beaten Louisville. No previous Notre Dame team in program history can say the same. So there’s that.

Last time Notre Dame beat Louisville in Yum! Center was late in the 2015 season. You walked out of the building and into the cold Kentucky night that night knowing that team, that season, that program, was going places. It nearly went all the way to the Final Four. 

Different team, different time Saturday, but a similar feeling. Out into the cold Kentucky night you stepped and wondered where this all might be headed.

Can’t wait to find out. 

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

► NOTRE DAME 82, LOUISVILLE 70

At KFC Yum! Center

NOTRE DAME (82): Atkinson 6-7 1-1 13, Laszewski 3-6 0-0 7, Goodwin 5-8 0-0 13, Hubb 4-6 1-1 12, Wesley 8-13 3-5 22, Ryan 2-5 0-0 6, Wertz 3-4 0-0 9. Totals 31-49 5-7 82.

LOUISVILLE (70): Curry 2-4 0-0 4, Williams 4-10 0-0 11, Faulkner 4-8 0-0 9, Locke 2-5 0-0 5, Davis 2-6 3-4 7, West 5-9 0-0 14, Withers 4-10 1-2 9, Cross 0-0 0-0 0, Ellis 2-3 0-0 5, Williamson 3-4 0-0 6. Totals 28-59 4-6 70.

Halftime: Louisville 45-38. 3-Point Goals: Notre Dame 15-23 (Wertz 3-3, Wesley 3-4, Goodwin 3-5, Hubb 3-5, Ryan 2-3, Laszewski 1-3), Louisville 10-21 (West 4-4, Williams 3-6, Ellis 1-1, Locke 1-2, Faulkner 1-4, Davis 0-1, Withers 0-3). Rebounds: Notre Dame 23 (Laszewski 6), Louisville 27 (Withers 9). Assists: Notre Dame 17 (Hubb 5), Louisville 9 (Faulkner 5). Total Fouls: Notre Dame 12, Louisville 10. A_16,175 (22,090).