"I didn't think it would've been an upset. We didn't believe that," said Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Mike Brey following his team's Midwest regional final against the top-seeded undefeated Kentucky Wildcats. Despite the outcome, a narrow two-point loss to the undisputed best team in the land, this attitude showed for Notre Dame throughout 40 tough, grueling, outstanding minutes of basketball in a showdown being hailed as an instant NCAA Tournament classic.
Despite many touting Notre Dame's offensive ability as a potential threat to Kentucky's quest for perfection, no one actually thought the Irish would knock off the Wildcats. It was almost unthinkable, and inevitably Notre Dame would go softly into the cold Cleveland night. Instead, the Irish gave Kentucky all it could handle physically and mentally despite giving up plenty of inches and mountains of reputation to John Calipari's roster full of NBA talent.
In fact, early on, it was Notre Dame and its lineup with only two players, and only one who would amass significant playing time, taller than 6'5" against the towering Wildcats who were actually winning the rebounding battle and picking up more points in the paint. Instead of the barrage of desperate threes most expected the Irish to need to beat these Wildcats, they steadfastly got themselves inside the arc and stuck to their guns offensively, completely unafraid like they were supposed to be.
The Irish actually held the lead for much of the first half, before a mini-run late for Kentucky nodded the score at 31 heading into the break. It was obvious, at least through twenty minutes, that the Irish were going to give Kentucky a game.
Coming out of halftime, Kentucky looked to take the game over. They picked up seven quick points and extended to a five-point lead, possibly signaling the beginning to the end of this one. But not these Irish. They've been here before. Just like against North Carolina in the ACC Championship game or against Wichita State two nights earlier, Notre Dame kicked it into another gear from the second their opponent took the lead. The Irish went on a 13-4 run to take back the lead and extend it to four, and what followed was a second half for the ages.
These two teams went back and forth the rest of the way, seemingly trading Zach Auguste dunks for Karl-Anthony Towns layups for minutes at a time. The Irish extended their lead to six, Kentucky answered right back with a three of their own.
Following the under-four minute TV timeout, with the Irish up two, Aaron Harrison hit a tremendous three from well beyond the arc, giving Kentucky its first lead since very early in the half. Jerian Grant responded with a shot clock buzzer-beater of his own from even a step further behind the arc, regaining the lead for Notre Dame.
Following an Andrew Harrison turnover, Grant had a chance on the ensuing possession for a back-breaking jumper that agonizingly rimmed out. Kentucky went straight to Towns, who nodded up the score with yet another turnaround lay-in over Auguste, his final two points of a game-high 25. Grant followed with a step-back jumper to regain the lead, only to be denied by Willie Cauley-Stein in an incredible display of athleticism, leading to a shot clock violation, Notre Dame's first turnover since early in the first half.
With the chance to hold for the last shot, Andrew Harrison went to the rack with time ticking down under ten seconds, drawing a blocking foul on Notre Dame's Demetrius Jackson. Harrison buried his two free throws, and Grant's desperation three in the corner after a furious coast-to-coast race up the court with Cauley-Stein fell no good.
Notre Dame's upset bid fell just short, and Kentucky escaped, still perfect.
The cruel thing about expecting to win, as Mike Brey insisted his team did, is that it hurts when you fall just short in a game that neither team deserved to lose and both belong in the Final Four. Those were Jerian Grant's exact words in the locker room following the game.
"You really don't understand that that you're not going to be playing in this jersey anymore. With these guys. It hurts," Grant told ESPN's Eamonn Brennan.
There was never going to be any moral victories for this team. Not even against a team they had no chance to beat. That just was never in their DNA. It's why they won 32 games, an ACC Championship, and were just a bucket shy of an appearance in the Final Four.
What happened on the court in Quicken Loans Arena on Saturday night was a complete thrill ride, a game for the ages, and certainly one of the best Elite Eight games in the tournament's history.
It's what comes afterwards that is truly heartbreaking, why sports can just be so cruel sometimes. After such a magical ride that this program has rarely, if ever, seen, it ends in gut-wrenching fashion a weekend too early. This team will never suit up together again; they "don't get to practice tomorrow" as Brey lamented following the game.
Indeed, the ending is impossible to swallow, even in the morning after. But it is only made difficult because it capped off such an unforgettable season that saw a coach, his players, and an entire program reach new, incredible heights behind an aesthetic brand of basketball and an even more tenacious fire and will to get there.
It hurts now, but the banners hanging in the rafters of the Purcell Pavilion commemorating this team will have us all smiling for years to come.
Other Thoughts and Observations:
- It says something about this team that I completely expected Grant's desperation three at the buzzer to fall. It just felt like this season could not end yet, especially not after a game like that.
- Saturday night is a big part why I think measuring a coach's worth by his best postseason accomplishment(s) is pretty silly (with some obvious exceptions at the top). Mike Brey's team was Final Four worthy and nearly knocked off an undefeated team who could very well stand among the greatest in history to get there. Sure, he's not a Final Four coach (yet), but it's just stupid after seeing that to think he is not worthy of being in that echelon. Same goes for Sean Miller at Arizona. The guy has lost a handful of times in the Elite Eight by an average of 3 points. March is cruel, but we shouldn't be so dumb as to think that it actually says something about the coach if the breaks didn't go his way while on the verge of the Final Four. Too fluky.
- The play that keeps running through my mind is the third-to-last possession. Grant's step-back was halfway down before rimming out. I think he should've probably tried something different in the following possession with Cauley-Stein on him, but he had this one and it would've been a dagger. Basketball is just cruel sometimes.
- Martin Ingelsby was a primary contributor in developing the scouting report and game plan that nearly knocked off the team that no one is supposed to be able to beat, this after doing so throughout the ACC Tournament and Elite Eight run. He'll be a tough loss this offseason, because I firmly believe that someone (smart) will hire him to be their head coach, but it will be very deserved. I'd bet money that he will be a successful head coach.
- Steve Vasturia is something else. Just completely fearless and effective going into the paint against these guys, especially with Trey Lyles on him for long stretches of the game. He's one of the best at using the glass of any guard I have seen. He will be special to watch the next two seasons.
- The future is certainly bright. Despite losing Grant and Connaughton, one of the best graduating classes in program history, the core of Jackson, Vasturia, and Colson for the next couple years, plus Auguste whose meteoric rise throughout this season will have him on plenty of preseason awards lists for another season, should make for another very competitive bunch. Add in guys with huge potential like V.J. Beachem and Rex Pflueger, glue guys like Austin Torres, and what should be another in a long line of Irish sharpshooters in Matt Ryan, and I really think Mike Brey has something special building in South Bend. The difference may be that the postseason monkey is now off his team's back, so we may finally be able to see his trademark consistency extend into March.
- It's hard to come to grips with this season being over. The feeling after the Cubs were eliminated in the 2003 NLCS is the only thing comparable to this right now from my sports allegiances. This was just an unbelievable team to watch battle all season long with so much to make Notre Dame fans proud, both on and off the court. It felt almost surreal all March to be able to watch this train keep rolling.
- As a fan and alum, I can't possibly put into words my appreciation for Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant. Well done, gentlemen.
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p> You both did so much to help put us back on the map. Thank you. <a href="http://t.co/ZNBSpJe3qy">pic.twitter.com/ZNBSpJe3qy</a></p>— Notre Dame MBB (@NDmbb) <a href="https://twitter.com/NDmbb/status/582021727049289728">March 29, 2015</a></blockquote>
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