Irish - Wildcats Basketball Series Filled With Drama

By Alan Wasielewski

What you might know when you click on this story: Notre Dame and Kentucky have announced they will be playing a multiple-game series (three to be exact) for the first time since 2001-04. The Irish will travel to Rupp Arena on December 12, 2020, with a neutral-site game played during the 2020-21 season and a Kentucky visit to Purcell Pavilion in 2021-22. 

As two of the top eight all-time winningest men’s basketball programs, this is a big deal. For those that remember the 2015 NCAA Elite Eight battle at Quicken Loans between these two teams, it also teases a string of great basketball battles. 

What you might not know is that this series goes far beyond the 2015 meeting, the two most recent victories by Notre Dame (2009 and 2012) and the dominating series record (43-19) for Kentucky. 

While the Wildcats have piled up the wins, this series has piled up its share of dramatic moments. 

Kentucky has played the spoiler role and ended three noteworthy Irish basketball seasons –  

  • In 1958, the Irish were fresh off a victory over Indiana and a game away from the Final Four and were powered by All-American Tommy Hawkins and John McCarthy. Saddled with early foul trouble on Kentucky’s home court, Hawkins couldn’t get going until late in the contest, and the Irish suffered the worst postseason in school history, 89-56. 
  • The 1970 postseason run powered by the greatest NCAA tournament scorer ended in Columbus, Ohio, at St. John Arena. Still remembered today for the tournament, Austin Carr poured in a record 61 points in the first-round victory over Ohio, but Kentucky bounced Carr (and his 52-point outing) in the next round. 
  • The third tough ending came in the aforementioned 2015 classic, with Kentucky earning a trip to the Final Four with a two-point victory as Jerian Grant’s last-second corner three pointer sailed wide of the mark. 

Before those postseason setbacks, however, Notre Dame had its own run of success in the series. Adolph Rupp, Kentucky’s Hall of Fame coach from 1930-1972, went zero-for-six at The Notre Dame Fieldhouse – also known to opposing teams as ‘The Snake Pit.’ Those victories included –   

  • A 28-7 first-half lead in 1936 on the way to a 41-20 victory in Rupp’s first visit to Notre Dame. This marked the first of six consecutive wins for the Irish over Kentucky from 1936 through 1942. 
Notre Dame's stream-lined cage squad exhibited the most aggressive brand of basketball that has been witnessed in the local fieldhouse, last Monday night, when they overwhelmed a fighting-Kentucky five, 41 to 20, before 5,500 spectators. - The Scholastic, February 14, 1936
  • An amazing 64-55 upset of Kentucky in 1948, one of just three losses that season for the Wildcats. On Irish head coach Moose Krause’s 35th birthday, his team delivered for their mentor who had installed a new ‘high post’ offense just for the Kentucky game. Leo Barnhorst (6-4) and John Foley (6-5) roamed the foul line, allowing Kevin O’Shea to burn the Wildcats with 25 points on the low post. 
  • The 1948 game convinced Rupp that a victory at Notre Dame was impossible for a visiting team. The Fieldhouse was notorious for its cramped environment, placing the Notre Dame band behind the visitor’s bench and more than 300 seminarians of the Congregation of Holy Cross across from the visitor’s bench in their signature black robes. Rupp swore he would not return to play at Notre Dame, but the contract called for one more visit in 1950. 
  • That 1950 game took place during finals week for the Irish, but the outcome was the same – a 64-51 victory for the home team. Kentucky would not head north to Notre Dame to play another men’s basketball game until 1990. 
“The Kentucky Wildcats must be wondering how any team beats Notre Dame on its home floor. Two years ago, an all-conquering Kentucky five stopped off in South Bend, on its way to the National Championship, to take on the Notre Dame quintet. This wasn't just another championship team though. Many were calling it the greatest collegiate basketball team ever assembled. But the Wildcats were in for a bad night. The Irish students started screaming at the first whistle and the team could do nothing wrong. Notre Dame tagged Kentucky with one of its few losses that year, 64-55. We wonder what Jim Line, Dale Barnstable and the other members of that Wildcat outfit were thinking when they took the floor against the Irish a couple of weeks ago. The scene was almost identical — a Kentucky team driving for the National Championship, a gym jam-packed with cheering Irish students. The game turned out to be identical, too, as the Notre Dame team played its best game of the year to drop the Bluegrass five. They say Notre Dame can beat anybody on its home court. You won't have to convince the Wildcats. Since the series started back in 1929, the Irish have taken 11 out of 16 from Kentucky. And the boys from down South are still looking for their first win on the Fieldhouse hardwood. - Jack Meaney, The Scholastic, February 10, 1950

Freedom Hall became the ‘neutral’ home for the Notre Dame – Kentucky series throughout the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s. It was during that time frame when Kentucky seized control of the series, earning victories in 26 of the 30 meetings between the two schools. When one school dominates a series in that fashion, the wins are sure to be memorable – and they were for the Irish – 

  • A high-scoring 111-97 triumph in 1964 that saw the Irish out-rebound the Wildcats 81-44. Ron Reed poured in 34 points, and Notre Dame became just the third team to score more than 100 points against Kentucky. 
  • A controversial start to the 1970 meeting which saw Irish head coach Johnny Dee refuse to use the ‘Adolph Rupp Autographed Version’ of the game basketball. After a delay at the start as the teams worked out which ball to use, Austin Carr grabbed the autographed ball, scored 50 points and led his team to a 99-92 win. 
  • Digger Phelps’ third season at Notre Dame saw his surging 1973-74 team post a 94-79 victory in late December over an uncharacteristic middling Kentucky team. John Shumate led the Irish, who scored 51 points in the second half, with 22 points and 14 rebounds. 
  • A 67-61 win over No. 2/1 Kentucky in 1980 that might have been Kelly Tripucka’s finest effort in an Irish uniform. Tripucka hit six consecutive free throws to ice the game and finished eight-of-14 from the field and 14-of-15 from the line for 30 points. 


Notre Dame Fighting Irish - Official Athletics Website

Notre Dame also broke through for two consecutive wins in 1988 and 1990, but Kentucky answered with another streak of eight victories including four straight over Mike Brey-coached teams in 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2004. 

The last two visits by the Wildcats to Purcell Pavilion have ended with Irish victories, however. A 77-67 win in the 2009 NIT marked the end of the Billie Gillespie era in Lexington, while Notre Dame upset No. 8/8 Kentucky 64-50 in the 2012 BIG EAST/SEC Challenge.

So as the Irish gear up and head to Rupp Arena on December 12, 2020, look beyond the record in the series and look forward to enjoying two historical college basketball programs poised to provide another dramatic moment.  

Notre Dame Fighting Irish - Official Athletics Website

Notre Dame vs. Kentucky | 2012 | Highlights

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