March 29, 2015

It’s bright, sunny and 21 degrees in Cleveland as the University of Notre Dame men’s basketball team for the first time in 36 years competes tonight for an NCAA Final Four berth.

For all the attention on basketball at this time of year, the Notre Dame-Kentucky matchup marks the second contest of the day for an Irish team against a top-ranked and unbeaten opponent. Back in South Bend, the second-rated Notre Dame men’s lacrosse team faces off at noon against #1-ranked and 7-0 Syracuse–and the Irish win that one 13-12 in double overtime.

In ratings data from Thursday night, coverage of the NCAA Sweet 16 averaged a combined 9.1 overnight rating on CBS and Turner Sports, up 30 percent from last year (7.0) and the highest for the second Thursday of the tournament since the current scheduling format began in 1991. In the early primetime window, Notre Dame/Wichita State on CBS and North Carolina/Wisconsin on TBS combined for a 9.3 overnight–up 39 percent from last year and the highest since 1991.

Cleveland Plain-Dealer columnist Bill Livingston’s story in the morning edition is headlined: “Kentucky vs. Notre Dame in NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 – A clash of different strengths and cultures.” Writes Livingston, “The football school, even if it’s not so prominent in the flagship sport anymore, plays the Beautiful Game. The basketball school, which is more prominent than ever this season, plays the pro game. You know, the contest of size, athleticism and defensive intensity typical of June in the NBA, which is the ultimate goal anyway. Things are all mixed up in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament’s Midwest Regional. Notre Dame is the team with the silky strokes and the high-efficiency offense.”

Headlines from the Lexington Herald-Leader include, “Notre Dame’s offensive precision, Kentucky’s unrelenting defense promise intriguing Elite Eight collision” and “Notre Dame could be tough foe for Cats but tougher for Cats fans.” Writes Mark Story, “From the Dan Issel-Vaughn Wedeking game in 1970 through ‘the fourth-time is LSU’s charm’ contest of 1986 to the John Wall-Joe Mazzulla game in 2010, the final eight has long been Kentucky’s ‘heartbreak’ round. All-time, Kentucky is 35-10 in round-of-16 games. The Cats are 12-4 in Final Four contests. In the national championship game, UK is 8-4. However, in the Elite Eight, Kentucky is ‘only’ 16-18. There’s also Notre Dame tradition to fret over. The Irish have a rich basketball heritage as a giant killer. Ten different times, the Fighting Irish have knocked off the top-ranked team in either the Associated Press (media) or coaches’ polls. In December 1980, the Irish upset a top-rated Kentucky. As recently as 2012, they took down No. 1 Syracuse. Most famously, Notre Dame snapped the 88-game winning streak of John Wooden and UCLA in January 1974. The Irish say they will draw strength Saturday from what their program has done in past David-Goliath scenarios.”

Here’s the last word from all the pregame hype Friday and it comes from Irish head coach Mike Brey who suggests there are no moral victories tonight: “We’ll be very disappointed if we don’t win. I know we’re double-digit underdogs. Our locker room, we’ll be on the floor. (Pat) Connaughton and (Jerian) Grant will be a mess if we don’t win, no question.”

The Irish team has a late breakfast, sits in for a film scouting session and then leaves to shoot at Quicken Loans Arena in the assigned 11:45 a.m.-12:45 p.m. window. The Notre Dame pregame meal is at 4:30 p.m., with Brey’s squad set to depart for The Q at 7 p.m.

The Marriott lobby is jammed with fans, cheerleaders and band members for the team send-off. At 6:56 p.m. Brey is on the bus and Demetrius Jackson a minute later leads the line of players. At 6:58 the bus is rolling and at 7:01 it pulls into the underground garage at Quicken Loans Arena.

7:20 p.m. — Everybody in the Irish locker room is dressed in a gold uniform–except Grant who hasn’t moved from his seat. The same music reverberates from the Notre Dame speakers.

The keys for the Irish are hardly a surprise. On defense, don’t give us anything easy in transition, be alert to changing defense and top-level team rebounding. On offense, pick your spots to run and attack, control the tempo and get great movement and great shots.

7:34 p.m. – Half the Notre Dame team is on the floor, waiting for the basketballs to become available 57 minutes prior to tip. Fans in the arena watch the Wisconsin-Arizona West Regional finale on the monstrous center-hung video board. There’s already a palpable buzz apparent, as U2 dominates the pregame sounds in The Q.

7:44 p.m. – Irish strength and conditioning coordinator Tony Rolinski leads the team stretch.

7:52 p.m. – The official sheet with pregame lineups and officials is passed out along press row. The Notre Dame starters average just over 6-5 in height; the Kentucky starters average 6-9.

8:20 p.m. – Brey instructs his group before formal warm-ups, going through every Kentucky player and noting what each one does best and how to defend it. “I was thinking about our program going from last year to this year,” he says. “What a great story we’ve become. Remember our edge. Let’s have fun . . . ” As the players file out, former Irish great Austin Carr stops into the coaches’ room to share a few thoughts with Brey.

8:55 p.m. – The Irish lead 4-2 on a Zach Auguste put-back inside the 17-minute mark.

8:57 p.m. – At the first media break at 15:53, the Irish lead 4-3 in points and 4-1 in rebounds. Both teams already have three turnovers. Out of the timeout Vasturia puts in a feed from Connaughton and it’s 6-3 Irish.

9:04 p.m. – The Wildcats move in front 12-11 by the second break at 11:48. Both teams have five field goals, one of them from three-point range. Notre Dame leads 6-3 in rebounds, but the Irish already have five turnovers. Grant has three assists.

9:08 p.m. – The video board shows Cavalier star LeBron James in the stands and a huge cheer erupts.

9:14 p.m. – The action is fast and furious. The ‘Cats call time on a loose-ball scramble at 7:46, leading 19-17. The Irish have hit eight of 15 shots, Kentucky seven of 17. Auguste has six points, Connaughton five. Notre Dame as a team has seven assists. When the game resumes, Connaughton grabs his fifth rebound, and the play ends in an Auguste rebound dunk. Then Auguste (he has eight points now) is hit with his second foul at 6:33 and has to sit.

9:24 p.m. – Grant drives with his left hand, gets the hoop and draws a foul, only Kentucky’s second, at 5:05. Grant’s free throw gives the Irish a 22-21 edge. Then Karl-Anthony Towns commits an offensive foul, and Grant responds with a jumper. It’s 24-21 Notre Dame.

9:27 p.m. – At the last media break at 3:10, it remains 24-21 for the Irish with the ‘Cats at the line. Kentucky has missed its last five shots (3:24 scoring drought) and has hit only one of its last eight, two of the last 11 and seven of 21 overall.

9:45 p.m. – It’s tied at 31 at the half. Says Brey in the locker room, “Just keep game pressure on ’em. Let’s get out of the gate the second half. We didn’t get off to a great start.” The Irish hold the ‘Cats to .370 field-goal shooting (10 of 27), while hitting 13 of 28 themselves. Kentucky leads 18-15 on the boards. The Irish have only six turnovers after an early flurry. The Harrison twins (Aaron and Andrew) are a combined zero for five from the floor for Kentucky. Adds Brey, “Right where we want to be. Right where we want to be, man. Stay in front of them and it stalls them. We’re getting a feel for this. Keep getting to the backboard. We’ve been there . . . “

Says Connaughton, “We’ve got 20 more minutes.”

Not done yet.

10:07 p.m. – The teams are matching each other, great play for great play. It’s 46-42 for the Irish after a Connaughton dunk and John Calipari calls a Kentucky timeout. Auguste has 14 points (as does Towns) and Grant has 11. At the 13:39 media break, Kentucky has seven blocked shots. The Irish have hit six of 10 shots this half and have moved into a 21-19 lead in rebounding. Carr is shown on the video board and receives a nice ovation.

10:17 p.m. – Towns is called for an offensive foul (his third) at the 11:15 media break. The Irish have the ball up 48-44. Auguste has 16 points (eight of 10 from the field) and has six rebounds.

10:28 p.m. – The Irish call time at 8:13, still leading 52-49 after a Grant drive and lay-in.

10:32 p.m. – The Irish make a steal at the defensive end, Vasturia connects on a three from way back and at 6:10 it’s 59-53 for Notre Dame. Connaughton and Auguste both have nine rebounds. Kentucky calls time.

10:34 p.m. – At the 5:22 media break, Auguste goes to the line to try to complete a three-point play with his team leading 61-56. Towns now has four fouls. Kentucky has hit 11 of 16 shots this half.

10:42 p.m. – At the final media break at 3:45 it’s 62-61 for Notre Dame with Connaughton going to the line for one and one. Auguste has 20 points but now has four fouls and Colson replaces him. Connaughton makes one.

10:46 p.m. – Aaron Harrison connects on a long three and Kentucky has the lead 64-63, as the ‘Cats have hit their last eight shots (Notre Dame has hit five of their last seven). Brey calls time at 2:48. Grant responds with a three. He has 15 points and Kentucky calls time at the 2:24 mark. At 1:59 the ‘Cats step out of bounds and the Irish have the ball with a 66-64 lead.

10:57 p.m. – The Irish call their final timeout after a shot clock violation after a Grant shot was blocked. Kentucky has the ball with :33.7 remaining. The ‘Cats have hit their last nine shots. At :06.0 Jackson fouls Andrew Harrison. He hits the first and the second. No timeouts for the Irish. Grant misses a tough one from the left baseline in front of the Irish bench. And with that it’s over.

Says Brey to his squad, grabbing a chair and sitting in front of his team, “We battled our butts off. We emptied the tank. That’s all we could ask. I feel bad that I don’t get to interact with you guys again after all the great stuff you guys have done this year.

“It was a great college game. We played fearlessly like we did all year. I feel bad for Pat and J (Grant). What you two guys gave us was off the charts. We invested like a son of a gun. It should sting.

“It was a flat-out honor to coach you. When we walk out of here, walk out with your heads up.

“We laid it on the line. We made big fearless plays to give ourselves a chance to win.”

It all ends so fast that it’s stunning. Once Brey finishes, the locker room goes silent. Players stare down, at the ceiling or straight ahead. No one moves. All that after going 28 minutes without a turnover.

Says Grant, “We had a chance to win. We didn’t make enough plays.

“It’s tough to know how close we were to doing something special. And now it’s over.”

The reality show that is sports says that one minute you are about to shock the college basketball world and move on to Indianapolis–and the next the other guys are cutting down the nets.

Kentucky may yet go down as one of the all-time great teams in college history. On one night, however, the Irish made the ‘Cats look ever so human.

— by John Heisler, senior associate athletics director