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Men’s Basketball: Notre Dame defeats No. 8 Kentucky with ease

Andrew Gastelum | Friday, November 30, 2012

When Notre Dame football is ranked No. 1 in the country, attention to other sports comes sparingly. But for just one night, basketball reigned supreme.

In front of an electric sellout crowd at Purcell Pavilion, Notre Dame upset defending national champion No. 8 Kentucky, 64-50.

“It was just a special night. I think we were prepared for it and we just really wanted to play well,” said senior forward Jack Cooley, who notched his third-straight double-double with 13 points and 11 rebounds. “With all the football stuff happening, we kind of want to make a statement now that Notre Dame is going to beat the SEC.”

Ten months after the Irish upset No. 1 Syracuse, Heisman trophy candidate Manti Te’o led the “blackout” crowd’s in rushing the court after unranked Notre Dame (7-1) – 41-1 in its last 42 home games – held an inexperienced Kentucky team averaging 85.2 points per game to its lowest scoring output in over six years.

“Our crowd was definitely our sixth man tonight,” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “That building was electric and having our football guys there was great, but it was a tough atmosphere to play in. When our atmosphere’s like that it’s hard to play, young or old it’s going to be tough to win here.”

Junior guard Eric Atkins led the charge for the Irish, matching a season high with 16 points on 7-for-9 shooting to go with four assists and three steals in 38 minutes. The captain scored 11 of the team’s first 15 points by the midway point of the first half.

In his last three games, Atkins has been a model of efficiency, recording 21 assists and just one turnover. With under 11 minutes to go in the first half, Atkins knocked down a three from the wing to give the Irish a lead they would never relinquish.

“[Junior guard Jerian Grant] really set me up early with a couple of curls and I got going,” Atkins said. “So I just wanted to keep that up and keep myself rolling and it worked out … When I hit a few early, my confidence was at a high. After that, I pretty much felt like I could do anything.”

After losing all five starters to the 2012 NBA Draft, the Wildcats (4-2) came into the season ranked No. 3 in the country, led by three five-star freshman recruits in forward Nerlens Noel, forward Alex Poythress and guard Archie Goodwin. But the Wildcats shot 37.5 percent from the field in the first half, despite coming into the game leading the country in field goal percentage (55.8 percent).

“I expected that we wouldn’t play well. It is the first time out of the gate. I’m disappointed that we didn’t compete,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “[...] You have to give Notre Dame credit. What a great crowd, with their student body, and the way they played. They grounded us and that’s how we play when we get up.”

Notre Dame held Kentucky’s top two scorers, Goodwin (19 points per game) and Poythress (18.4 points per game), to six points on 2-for-8 combined shooting. Poythress ran into foul trouble after picking up two fouls just over five minutes into the game.

The Irish went into halftime with a 36-25 lead on a 30-13 run, hitting nine of their last 10 shots as Kentucky went six minutes without a field goal. Notre Dame held an 18-11 rebounding edge and a 20-12 advantage in points in the paint in the first half.

“My whole thing is you can play poorly and still defend and compete,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “In other words, two teams just battling it out and Notre Dame wins. This is not what this was. This was Notre Dame throwing around Kentucky and winning.”

Down by as much as 20 in the second half, the Wildcats went on an 8-1 run with 9:41 left behind two 3-pointers from graduate student guard Julius Mays and tenacious defense from the six-foot-ten Noel. Mays led Kentucky with 16 points on 4-of-6 shooting from beyond the arc while Noel added 10 points and seven rebounds.

With 2:35 left in the game, Noel cut the lead to 10 with a powerful dunk over his defender, but Notre Dame scored four straight points on layups from Cooley and Atkins to seal the upset victory.

The Irish had four scorers in double-figures, including Grant (13 points) and freshman forward Cameron Biedscheid (10 points), while graduate student forward Scott Martin added eight second-half points.

The win, Notre Dame’s fourth in eight days, gives Brey his third-straight win over a top-10 opponent in his 400th game as Irish head coach.

“I’m really proud of our group,” Brey said. “We really prepared like an experienced team the past two days. I though we played like an experienced group, defended excellently for 40 minutes and got into our offensive rhythm when we really needed to.

“Something for us to build on, but we need a little bit of rest now because that’s been a busy stretch for us.”

Contact Andrew Gastelum at agastel1@nd.edu